|Taking a knee in protest has a long history in the United States|
This week a sensational story captured the headlines and dominated my class discussions.
Like many opportunities, this presented a chance to make history come alive for my students and create clear uses for knowing history that are valuable and relevant to their lives.
The story was Donald Trump and his attack on player from the National Football League who protest during the national anthem.
The tweets which Donald Trump sent were as follows:
Donald Trump was calling out the protest of racial violence against African Americans that caught the attention of the media last year, when the San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick started kneeling by the sideline.
Interestingly, this is not the first time athletes have protests racial injustice in the United States. Like other protests, however, this was misunderstood by the white majority of the public to be an attack on the national spirit, and the armed services specifically.
I was glad to see another side of the debate voiced by my students.
Many of them welcomed the chance to discuss the protests, and many joined in kneeling at the football game last Friday night.
|Rosa Parks was not protesting public transportation.|
Since the kneeling of Colin Kaepernick reignited this debate, it is instrumental to start with him. I remind my class that the meaning of his protest needs to be remembered. But as a lesson in history, protesting by American athletes of color goes back well beyond Kaepernick.
|Black Power Salute, Mexico City 1968|
The kneeling protests of American football players is patriotism on display, I argue. Like the decision to stand for the anthem, the decision to kneel for it is a political act.
Those who argue that the football field should not be a place of political speech misunderstand the political role American football has always played.
After the Native American Wars were over, many young Native American children were taken from their tribal communities, stripped from their families and their culture, and sent to live in Indian Schools.
These schools were designed to “kill the Indian”, but save the child by teaching how to be Americanized into the dominant white society.
|The Carlisle Indian School|
|The Real All Americans
By Sally Jenkins
The Carlisle Indian School was the most famous, and many of the players even went on to play professional football. Jim Thorpe, was perhaps the most famous, and he not only played professionally, but the Jim Thorpe Award is still given annually to the best defensive back in college football.
The coach of the Carlisle Indian School was the legendary coach Pop Warner, and played many early games against Harvard and Yale universities.
The idea of playing the elite all white school of Harvard and Yale was the brainchild of Carlisle founder Richard Henry Platt, who as a U.S. Army officer brought Sioux Indian children from South Dakota to educate them and assimilate them into white America.
If the Carlisle Indians could play Harvard in American football, then Platt felt the experiment in assimilation would be see as successful.
At the time they were pioneered by the Carlisle Indians, however, they were routinely determined to be illegal if they helped the Native Americans best their white opponents.
It is white privilege because, when an action by a non-white American disrupts the narrative of white American success, even if only to remind us that it is white propaganda or the privilege of ignorance about inequality, then it is illegal, or a violation of the rules.
For Trump, African Americans are supposed to compete in American life and keep quite about how the rules are designed to insure that they lose.
Trump and white Americans see the players and their political speech as anti-American, or anti-military.
But this example offers another lesson in American history, beyond just the white privilege and Donald Trump’s bigotry.
Interestingly enough, African Americans who have embraced American patriotism, leadership or even military service have suffered far worse for their efforts than football players who are scolded by the President.
African Americans who were seen wearing American military uniforms were seen as disrespectful to the nation and the (white) troops.
|African American Soldiers, post WW2|
“We do so much in this country to celebrate and honor folks who risk their lives on the battlefield…But we don’t remember that black veterans were more likely to be attacked for their service than honored for it.”
It is revealing that Trump is the response of white America to the advance of an African American as the first patriot; a reaction to an African American who became the president.
|Buffalo Soldiers in Wyoming|
During the Spanish Civil War, April-August 1898, Theodore Roosevelt famously used the Buffalo Soldiers in his Rough Riders platoon to fight at San Juan Hill. The buffalo soldiers were African American soldiers who were trained in riding and shooting after living on the Great Plains. Once they donned the uniform of the American military, however, the reaction of the white majority was representative of the insult they felt it represented to the symbols of the nation.
“Military service makes an unequivocal case for equal citizenship, so cases of African American veterans threatened with lynching, of their family members lynched in their absence, or their actual lynching expose the hypocrisy of American intervention in World War I and the arbitrary brutality of American racism.”
|Muhammad Ali, the patriot|
|Langston Hughes, poet|
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)
Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?
I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.
It might be considered un-American by Donald Trump, or by those who profess to love the troops.
It might be better to just stand and sing the anthem, crying out in patriotic hallelujahs at the pinnacle of the last stanza, “the land of the free, and the home of the brave!”
Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.
Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!
Trump calls out to his supporters to “Make America Great Again.”
I think that Hughes is more accurate when he tells us to “make america again!”
He says this because we have never made America what is is supposed to be. We have never made America live up to the promise of its founding creed, that all men are created equal.
We need to continue to take a knee in protest if we truly lover this country.
Those who expect a blind patriotism of all are not true patriots. They allow for the shortcomings of the nation. They accept when we fall short of what makes America great.
They do not love the country enough to make it better.
Those who know what America can be and expect more of it are the real patriots. This is the citizenship education that students need to learn in school.
They take the knee to call for America to be all that she can be, and never sing blindly a song which has no meaning unless it means the same for all Americans.
When it does, then we should all sing in unison and in unity.