Flag Day Should Bring America Together

Hong Kong protesters wave the red, white, and blue for a reason.

Flag Day—June 14—tends to be overshadowed by more famous civic celebrations like Independence Day, Memorial Day and Veterans Day. Yet the Stars and Stripes is one of the most powerful symbols on the planet, and now is the perfect time to ask why freedom fighters across the world look to it for inspiration.

The people of Hong Kong provide the answer. In recent years, they’ve faced an unprecedented assault on their liberties. Last spring, Communist China’s puppets in the Hong Kong Legislative Council tried to pass a bill that would have allowed Hong Kongers accused of wrongdoing to be extradited to the Chinese mainland, where they would face sham trials, torture or worse. This attack on Hong Kong’s autonomy sparked months of protests by millions of people. Nearly every time they gathered, one could see the Stars and Stripes held aloft by brave men and women.

Why did they pick that piece of cloth? Most Hong Kongers likely don’t know its history. They probably don’t care why the Second Continental Congress chose red, white and blue—“White signifies Purity and Innocence; Red, Hardiness and Valor; and Blue, Vigilance, Perseverance and Justice”—or how the flag has changed over the years, with stars added and stripes dropped.

All that matters to Hong Kong’s protesters is what the flag means: freedom. It stands for everything they cherish, and everything they lost with Beijing’s decision in May to absorb the city further into the Communist mainland with a new “national security” law.

As Communist China swallows Hong Kong, it’s unlikely we’ll see as many American flags there. But that doesn’t mean the people won’t still think about it or keep it close. I’ve talked to Soviet dissidents who hid American flags in their homes for decades, risking their lives. I’ve talked to Cuban exiles who wept when they hit American shores and saw the Star-Spangled Banner fluttering in the wind. Oppressed people the world over love the sight and thought of the American flag.

Even as faraway people place their hope in the red, white and blue, a growing number of Americans don’t. For them it has come to symbolize the country’s real shortcomings. Yet far from representing a farce that we should abandon or demean, the flag stands for an ideal toward which we can strive.

The history of this holiday is instructive. Flag Day was proclaimed in 1916 as the culmination of a decadeslong effort to heal the wounds of the Civil War. The goal was to unite the nation under a single banner, so that together it could move closer to fulfilling its promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The Stars and Stripes can be that symbol once again. As in decades past, the flag can bring Americans together to strengthen democracy, ensure freedom and promote equal justice for all. If those who labor under oppression around the world can look to the flag for inspiration, so can we Americans.

Mr. Smith is executive director of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation.

Originally published in The Wall Street Journal.