San Francisco 49er football quarterback Colin Kaepernick has resurrected a long standing national debate about patriotism and athletes over the years who have called attention to the hypocrisy associated with our xenophobic nationalism. His refusal to stand for the national anthem has spawn nation-wide objections ranging from social media outrage, loss of commercial endorsements and fans burning his jersey.
What we forget about Kaepernick’s constitutionally protected right to freedom of expression is he is following a long line of people of color athletes who have protested the “Star Spangled Banner.”
He got the debate started by saying, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color… There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
Muhamad Ali in 1967 refused induction into the military by saying, “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs?”
1968 Olympian athletes John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists in a Black Power salute during a medal ceremony as part of the Olympic Project for Human Rights. Carlos said, “A lot of the athletes thought that winning medals would supersede or protect them from racism. But even if you won a medal, it ain’t going to save your momma. It ain’t going to save your sister or children. It might give you 15 minutes of fame, but what about the rest of your life?
Jackie Robinson wrote the following in his 1972 biography, “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 1986, National Basketball Association player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf was suspended for his refusal to stand for the Star-Spangled Banner. He pointed out, “The flag is also a symbol of oppression, of tyranny… You can’t be for God and for oppression. It’s clear in the Quran, Islam is the only way. I don’t criticize those who stand, so don’t criticize me for sitting.”
In 2003, in protest of the invasion of Iraq, college basketball player Toni Smith turned her back on the US flag. She complained that, “A lot of people blindly stand up and salute the flag, but I feel that blindly facing the flag hurts more people. There are a lot of inequities in this country, and these are issues that needed to be acknowledged. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, and our priorities are elsewhere.”
Kareem Abdul Jabbar, the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, penned a Washington Post article in support of Kaepernick. He wrote, “What should horrify Americans is not Kaepernick’s choice to remain seated during the national anthem, but that nearly 50 years after Ali was banned from boxing for his stance and Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s raised fists caused public ostracization and numerous death threats, we still need to call attention to the same racial inequities. Failure to fix this problem is what’s really un-American here.”
Why would any African American want to stand for the national anthem? A song written by an opponent of abolition and a slave owner himself which celebrates the War of 1812 where the British recruited slaves to join their cause?
The most important verse of “Star Spangled Banner” is the 3rd stanza.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave,
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave,
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
That is something worth kneeling for. Something even Francis Scott Key would agree with.