“There I was, the black grandson of a slave, the son of a black sharecropper, part of a historic occasion, a symbolic hero to my people,” Jackie Robinson wrote in his autobiography. “. . . It should have been a glorious moment for me as the stirring words of the national anthem poured from the stands. . . . Today, as I look back on that opening game of my first world series, I must tell you that it was Mr. Rickey’s drama and that I was only a principal actor. As I write this twenty years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made.”
That’s what America is so slow to realize; that in spite of intellect and accomplishments, in spite of skill, talent and charisma, Americans like Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali and today, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, are still seen, judged – and often derided and dismissed – by too many Americans as people of color before they are seen and accepted as fellow citizens standing equally in our Public Square.
Poor Kaepernick, criticized for believing that the ideals for which veterans risk their lives are not being similarly protected at home:
“I have great respect for the men and women that have fought for this country,” he said. “I have family, I have friends that have gone and fought for this country. And they fight for freedom, they fight for the people, they fight for liberty and justice, for everyone.”
“People are dying in vain because this country isn’t holding their end of the bargain up,” he continued, “as far as giving freedom and justice, liberty to everybody.”
Imagine wanting to stand on that principle by sitting during the playing of America’s national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
In response to criticism of Kaepernick’s protest, many veterans rallied to support him on Twitter: #VeteransForKaepernick.
“I took an oath & served, so players on a team I don’t even like could have freedom of speech #VeteransforKaepernick”
Despite the tradition of sitting in protest, as did Rosa Parks, as did lunch-counter protestors in Greensboro, N.C., (where efforts to suppress voting rights continue to this day), and today as did Kaepernick, too few Americans honor protest as an act of courage if it challenges their prejudices or comfort.
Muhammad Ali refused to serve in Vietnam; Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in Mexico City as “The Star-Bangled Banner” played; and NBA player Mahmoud Abdul Rauf, who believed that the flag was a symbol of oppression and tyranny – all are seen as heretics who refuse to observe prevailing rituals as defined by ruling elites.
“Me: West Point, Ranger School, Kosovo, Iraq, Bronze Star. @Kaepernick7 is an American hero. #VeteransForKaepernick”
The attacks on Kaepernick are depressing; particularly the way he’s being criticized for not fully embracing the country that made him a millionaire – criticized for not being appreciative enough, for not acting, metaphorically, white enough.
Criticized for using a platform that being an athlete in America affords the successful – even backup NFL quarterbacks – for speaking on behalf of those Americans who live on the margins, who live in reverse-gated communities across America.
“I’m in a position where I can do that,” Kaepernick said, “and I’m going to do that for people that can’t.”
“People who haven’t served trying to tell us how we feel #VeteransForKaepernick”
There were the usual cries that a country that twice elected an African-American president can’t possibly be racist, that having an African-American attorney general proves we’re post-racial, that having black mayors and public officials across the nation – even African-American Republicans – means that America is colorblind.
How ungrateful “those people” get once they get off the plantation or get an education or a skill, some commentary suggested. Besides, some opined, Kaepernick, like President Obama, was biracial so what did he know about oppression?
Disrespectful, Kaepernick’s critics said, of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” disrespectful toward our military and all they’ve sacrificed.
Disrespectful toward a military that needed a presidential decree in 1948 in order to move toward integration, toward a sport that believed for the longest time that blacks weren’t smart enough to be NFL quarterbacks.
Give me a break.
Finally, note that the third verse of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” written by anti-abolitionist and slaveholder Francis Scott Key – who believed blacks to be “a distinct and inferior race of people, which all experience proves to be the greatest evil that afflicts a community” – attacks slaves who abandoned their American “masters” and fought alongside the British at Fort McHenry in:
“… No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave…”
At the end of the War of 1812, the Americans tried to negotiate the return of their “property” – 6,000 slaves – many of whom had been recruited and fought for the British on the promise of, when the war was over, being emancipated.
The British refused to return them, emancipating the men either in Canada or Trinidad.
Today, the tone of those who oppose Kaepernick’s protest, by either misinterpreting or deliberately misrepresenting his intentions, is best exemplified by Donald Trump, who said that Kaepernick should perhaps “find a country that works better for him.”
Love it or leave it – is that the answer?
No. What Trump and other critics fail to recognize is how much courage it takes, how American it is, to sit down in order to stand up correctly. The courage to critique, to struggle for justice, to be exceptional in love, in protest, in patriotism, is what we must honor.
“Husband & I are both vets & stopped standing for the Anthem 6 years ago Always had threats from ppl at pro games. Smh #VeteransForKaepernick”
Sit down in order to stand up correctly – that, America, is what it truly means to be both brave and free.