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That’s a lot of title, but all the elements are inextricably linked. Yesterday I didn’t post an article on The Daily Flag because I was doing research and answering questions. I am not a flag expert, but I am good at research, and I have patience, a highly useful skill in research. If you ask me a question, I will do my best to give you the right answer. The right answer—the protocol—is often found in precedence or tradition, and not the U.S. Flag Code, or it may come from military protocol.

A recurring question, a two–part question, is which comes first: the Pledge of Allegiance or the National Anthem. The U.S. Code, which is written for civilians, is silent on this. As a school girl, my classmates and I said the Pledge of Allegiance every morning: facing the U.S. flag, standing beside our desks, hands over hearts. This was in Texas, and there was a U.S. flag and a Texas flag in every classroom. (Some sets were small, some were large, and some were silky with gold fringe—but the flags were ubiquitous.)

We sang the Star-Spangled Banner when all the classes were assembled in the auditorium, gymnasium, et cetera. Sometimes we said the Pledge at the same time, but generally we did not, because we’d previously said the Pledge in our classrooms. That was a protocol decided by the school administration.

Which comes first?

Yesterday I spoke with a woman who was planning a large meeting. There was not going to be a color guard—the flags would be in place when the meeting started. She wanted to know which came first? The Pledge or the National Anthem, because a soloist was going to sing the Anthem. I suggested to her, based on previous experience and simplicity, to say the Pledge first. But there is no civilian protocol in the U.S. Code that says it must be done this way.

The Chair, to start the meeting, could ask for all to rise and say the Pledge, and all would sit down. After welcoming remarks and introduction of the soloist, then all could rise again while soloist sang the Anthem.

Would the presence of a color guard have changed the line-up? It seems to me that after the color guard posted the colors, the most natural thing in the world would be to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

Last night I watched the All-Star game on television. Singer Sheryl Crow sang the National Anthem while accompanying herself with the guitar. I didn’t see the entire opening, but I’m pretty sure the Pledge of Allegiance was not said, because the National Anthem was traditional to the event, and it was sufficient.


Would you all rise …

Another frequent question concerns the color guard and saluting the flag. On this question, the U.S. Code is explicit: all stand, and all salute, in the manner appropriate to your circumstance. In a parade, most of the time everyone is already standing when the color guard passes by, so you salute and hold the salute, until the color guard has passed abreast of your spot. If you are seated in a formal reviewing stand, you stand (probably all simultaneously) then sit again.


riding club with colors What if the parade you are watching has more than one set of colors? Last Christmas Larry and I watched a parade and I lost count of the color guards that passed in review, because I think every "group" that participated in the parade was carrying the U.S. flag.

There was an official color guard to lead off the parade, then there were high school marching bands, riding clubs, Shriners, county mounted posse, other civic clubs (Lions, Rotary), the VFW, et cetera. Well, I saluted (hand on my heart) every time an obvious color guard passed in front of me.



Another question concerned music during the presentation of the colors: Is it appropriate to play music, even patriotic music, during the presentation of the colors? Here are the exact words from the Flag code:

Section 9. Conduct during hoisting, lowering or passing of flag

During the ceremony of hoisting or lowering the flag or when the
flag is passing in a parade or in review, all persons present except
those in uniform should face the flag and stand at attention with the
right hand over the heart. Those present in uniform should render the
military salute. When not in uniform, men should remove their headdress
with their right hand and hold it at the left shoulder, the hand being
over the heart. Aliens should stand at attention. The salute to the flag
in a moving column should be rendered at the moment the flag passes.

(Added Pub. L. 105-225, Sec. 2(a), Aug. 12, 1998, 112 Stat. 1498.)

It does not address the inclusion of music, but I don’t think one can make an argument from silence and assume that it is ok. The presentation of the colors is a outstanding enough occasion that it does not need further adornment, or "gussied up." Surely we can bear a moment of silence while the flag goes by.

108 Responses to “Protocol questions—Parades, the Pledge, and the National Anthem”

  1. Ric Hausfeld says:

    Your site has been very informing. Skimmed thru the US State Department on Flag Protocol (thanks for the link), we have to read it in full here shortly. There are several questions that we have / would like clarified if possible. We are in charge or a large civilian parade, we normally have several color guards units in the parade (VFW, American Legion, AMVets, Vietnam Vets, Knights of Columbus, etc.). Been doing a lot of research on the proper protocol for color guard units in our parade. What we would like to know is:

    Where does it say that they do not all need to be at the beginning of the parade? I can not find anything official that states one way or the other. You posted earlier that they do not need to be all at the front of the parade, but where are you getting that info?

    Since there duplicates of several of the groups, my understanding is we need to know the start date of each chapter to put them in the proper order?

    What constitutes a color guard unit? We have several groups that claim they are a color guard unit and it is only a couple of people walking (with flags) in front of a military vehicle. I highly doubt that is a color guard unit, but what officially is one?

    Is a Drum Corp unit following the color guard (they say for cadences purposes) really part of a color guard unit?

    Are military vehicles considered part of a color guard unit? We have a couple of groups that claim their vehicle needs to follow their color guard unit (at the front of the parade) since it is part of the color guard.

    We have a couple of units that say their older members that can no longer walk in the parade should be able to ride on a trailer following their color guard unit, again at the front of the unit.

    There are several emails, blog comments, etc that are floating around claiming one way or another for the various questions that I asked. I’m trying to get to the bottom of this and find the official protocol, not what someone thinks it should be.

    Any and all help on these topics would be greatly appreciated.

  2. Thank you for writing, Mr. Hausfeld. I am working on a reply, but it will be later today before I can fully respond. Thanks, Deborah Hendrick

  3. Ric, I appreciate that you took the time to do some research into parade protocol, and found The Daily Flag. I am sorry about the delay in responding to you. I was out of town when your question came in.

    Your search for something “official” regarding Color Guard protocol won’t go very far. The U.S. Flag Code does not mention Color Guards at all, and I don’t know of any document for civilians that addresses Color Guards. One person carrying the Colors can be a Color Guard. If I want to line up three bankers and my granddaughter, and give them each a flag and put them in a parade, then they are a Color Guard. There is nothing “official” that would say they are not a Color Guard. There is a family in Missouri that has carried the Colors in their local parades for years—mounted on horseback. They’re on their third generation of riders. The Color Guard could be members of the high school basketball team. It doesn’t matter who carries the flags, only that the flags are carried properly, and with dignity and honor.

    A military parade would have one Color Guard only, but you have to figure out how to order perhaps a dozen Color Guards. The U.S. State Department “orders” organizations and groups by National, State, military, municipal, 501(c) non-profit, and others (business, unaffiliated, private, et cetera). Within these categories, the groups are ordered by the dates of their congressional charters.

    All chartered non-profits are the same to the State Dept. This means that in strict protocol, the Daughters of the American Revolution lead just about everyone, because the DAR was chartered in 1896. The Boy Scouts of America were charted 1910, before any veteran service organizations in the U.S. were chartered. Would a Boy Scout troop yield its position in a parade to the VSOs? Probably yes. But these things must be considered. A local Knights of Columbus organization could easily have a charter that is older than some VSOs.

    You must first decide upon one Color Guard to lead the parade. If a military Color Guard has been invited, then that Color Guard leads the parade, because military units are ordered before civilian. It would be an extreme breach of protocol for a military unit Color Guard to be invited to a parade, and then not be given the position of honor in leading the parade.

    ROTC units, even Jr.ROTC units are considered military and trump ALL civilian groups. This is hard for some old vets to understand—that a bunch downy-cheeked teenagers would be ordered ahead of them, but ROTC units are chartered under the aegis of their respective armed force, and they are pledged to them, and there is an order of command that they answer to.

    If you don’t have an official military Color Guard, and you do have an ROTC Color Guard, then that ROTC unit should lead your parade. They are given the same courtesy and honor as a full military Color Guard. Would a high school Jr ROTC unit give way to a veterans Color Guard? Yes, probably. (But we teach young people how to lead by permitting them to lead—my two cents).

    After this, how the parade organizers choose their lead Color Guard is up to them. If this parade is a yearly event, then it makes sense to take turns. I do recommend that the parade committee keep a parade journal, and write down everything in it. What worked, what didn’t work. I strongly recommend a pre-parade meeting to iron out any potential problems in the parade order, and a final order of participants since someone always drops out, and someone shows up at the last minute.

    If you have local fire departments or police departments who want to march their Color Guards, then generally they are ordered under their city charters, which are ordered before 501(c) non-profit organizations. If there are multiple groups within the same national VSO—three posts of VFW, for example—then they are ordered by the dates of their local charters. The national American Legion was chartered before the national Veterans of Foreign Wars, but if you have a lot of these local VSOs, then they could be ordered by the dates of their local charters which would mix them up (and that’s ok too, if no one fusses about it).

    I would not separate a Color Guard from the rest of its supporting organization. Because we have an aging veterans community, the need for them to ride instead of walking the parade route is now very common. The drum corp should follow its Color Guard. A jeep or a drum corp is obviously not part of the Color Guard—the Colors can certainly be carried alone—but it’s ok to keep them grouped together.

    [Some more of my two cents: To tell you the truth, I would love to see a parade where the various VSOs left their organizational flags behind, and they all marched together (or rode, as needed) behind The Colors. There are so many younger veterans who are not affiliated with a VSO, and I am somewhat uncomfortable that they may feel excluded from a parade (any parade, but especially a Memorial Day or Veterans Day parade) because they didn't join a VSO. An open invitation to walk with their fellow veterans of all ages might be very welcoming and encouraging.]

    Regarding the idea of ordering all the veterans and VSOs at the front of the parade: This would be for Memorial or Veterans Day parades. If it’s a Flag Day parade, or even a Forth of July parade, or the Pumpkin Festival parade, or the rodeo parade, then I think it is quite acceptable to spread the veterans throughout the parade.

    I hope this has helped. My original answer got wiped out so I had to start over, and I invariably leave out something when that happens! You are welcome to write me again here, or privately at deborah@flagsbay.com. Or you can telephone me until 9p Central. 830-899-4464.

    Best wishes, Deborah Hendrick

  4. Chuck says:

    What about a professional sporting event that wants multiple color guards from multiple branches of the armed forces. I work with the National Guad in my state, and we won’t support an event if there are going to be more than one branch color guard, rather we offer to help put together a joint armed forces color guard. The thinking is that it is more appropriate to have only one National flag on the field for the national anthem, rather than five seperate national flags with possibly different flag/pole sizes etc. Have you ever seen anything in print along these lines of thinking? Thanks.

  5. Chuck—You are singing my song. I have long fussed over the use of multiple Color Guards at sporting events. I guess the planners think if one Color Guard is good, then a dozen must be better. I have not seen anything in print except for my own postings on this topic. And the Flag Code makes no mention of Color Guards at all. But when the idea is opened to scrutiny, it is easy to make the case for one flag.

    One flag in motion takes “honors” over one flag on a flagpole, but with multiple Color Guards, which flag takes honors? It’s not possible. I am very much in favor of a combined services Color Guard and I hope you can reason with and persuade those in charge that one Color Guard is honorable and respectful to the flag, while multiple Color Guards is (instead) a spectacle. You will need to be very diplomatic. But the Colors are not a form of entertainment, nor a pre-game show.

    And one could make the case that if there were a flagpole and flag at the stadium, there is no need for a separate Color Guard, but I understand the desire for a military Color Guard. Certainly it helps focus our hearts and attention on the National Anthem.

    Thank you for writing, Chuck. If you have the time, drop me a note and let me know how it works out. deborah@flagsbay.com
    Best wishes, Deborah Hendrick

  6. Karen says:

    Thank you so much for this info, exactly what I needed but where exactly in Flag codes can I find this:

    You must first decide upon one Color Guard to lead the parade. If a military Color Guard has been invited, then that Color Guard leads the parade, because military units are ordered before civilian. It would be an extreme breach of protocol for a military unit Color Guard to be invited to a parade, and then not be given the position of honor in leading the parade.

    ROTC units, even Jr.ROTC units are considered military and trump ALL civilian groups. This is hard for some old vets to understand—that a bunch downy-cheeked teenagers would be ordered ahead of them, but ROTC units are chartered under the aegis of their respective armed force, and they are pledged to them, and there is an order of command that they answer to.

    We live in a predominantly asian community and somehow the Veterans and most importantly our US Flag take a back seat to the Chinese Dragons, I need to address our City Council and have durable facts and codes.

    Thank you again for your information!!

  7. Hello Karen—thank you for writing. What I have to tell you is a bit like Catch-22, but stick with me. The Flag Code is a document written essentially for civilians, and the Flag Code is silent on the topic of Color Guards. The Flag Code is silent on a LOT of topics, so we are guided by American history and tradition, etiquette and protocol established by the U.S. Department of State, and military etiquette and protocol. It’s a mix that we don’t always get right.

    It is our American custom to have an “official” Color Guard lead our civilian parades. If we can’t have a military Color Guard, then we want the Scouts, or the police, or sheriff’s department to carry the Colors. It is very common for veterans service organizations to carry the Colors (American Legion, VFW, VVA, and so on). I grew up in a little farming and ranching community, and the Colors in our parades were carried by members of the Rodeo Club, mounted on horseback—because that was our tradition.

    The fact is—anyone can carry the Colors as long as it is done properly and respectfully. Three bankers in suits, and my granddaughter in her Sunday best can carry the Colors, and it’s ok. It’s even ok to have a parade without the Colors at all. There’s no rule anywhere that says a civilian parade must lead off with the Colors. But the unwritten, never to be violated rule is that if the Colors are present in parade, then the Colors come first. And deciding who carries the Colors after that is predicated on the order established by the State Department (and that order is predicated on the dates of the organizations’ congressional charters). And woe unto the parade organizer who doesn’t put the Color Guard first in the parade.

    A few years ago, a parade organizer telephoned me. His town had a yearly civic fishing event that happened to fall that year on the Memorial Day weekend. The VFW normally would have provided the Color Guard for the fishing parade, but the Post’s Color Guard was elderly, and did not think they had the stamina to provide the Color Guard for the civic parade, and then the Memorial Day parade two days later. So the civic parade didn’t have a Color Guard. The condemnation that fell on the parade organizer’s head was swift and excoriating. Because too many in town believed that he and the fishing parade had dishonored the community by not having a Color Guard. The parade organizer—a veteran himself, and the chief of a city department—was in shock. And it took a lot of work to convince the community at large that it had not been a deliberate decision.

    If you approach the city council, be calm and compelling, and look each member in the eyes. Talk about American tradition and custom. Remind them that the public would be surprised and disappointed if the Colors were absent from the head of the parade. If the parade in question is the Memorial Day parade, or a parade that honors the military somehow, then it is unthinkable that it would commence without a Color Guard in the lead position. But doesn’t have to be military or veterans’ Color Guard; it can be “civilian.” (Of course, VSOs are civilians—special ones, but still civilians.) It would be quite honorable in fact, for civilians to honor the military in such a way. If the council is determined that the Chinese Dragons lead off the parade, then offer to equip the Dragons with the Colors and show them how to carry them. It would be quite a parade.

    Best Wishes, Deborah Hendrick

  8. Karen, you are welcome to telephone me if you’d like to talk more about this. Or I can call you if you’ll send me an email address. If I don’t answer, leave a message and I’ll call you back. Deborah Hendrick 830-899-4464

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