“Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for rights!”- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 1968
I believe somewhere in the Bible there is a scripture which suggests there is nothing new under the sun. This has been translated to mean that moments in history have a way of repeating themselves at different times, and although it may appear to be a new situation, it is actually not. For much of American history (pretty much all of it), there has been great tension between “liberty and justice for all” and “liberty and justice for some”. Please read that last statement carefully. One phrase comes from the Pledge of Allegiance, an expression to the flag of the United States for its commitment to freedom and equality. The other comes from privilege, or properly defined in America as “White privilege”.
Privilege is defined as the a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people. The tension that exists between freedom for all and freedom for some is because “all” initially meant White, and over the course of history, through war and protest, civil disobedience and riots, liberty and justice were rationally distributed to others: Jews, Blacks, Japanese, Hispanics and Native Americans. Each group has had to fight for the right of the hyphen: African-American, Hispanic-American, Japanese-American… you get the point. American identity for all did not come with the same privileges as it did for some.
Since the Emancipation Proclamation, seemingly liberating Blacks from slavery, Blacks fought tirelessly for rights to move from three-fifths of a person to a whole American. During the 1960’s, the strength of the Civil Rights Movement consisted of many national non-violent protests against the injustices and inequalities Blacks experienced from White America. On February 1, 1960, a new form of peaceful protest was added to the arsenal for equality. Four Black college students entered a “whites only” diner for a cup of Joe. When harshly denied, the students continued to sit patiently. White customers were enraged, yelling slurs, throwing food and vehemently insisting the students leave. This began the sit-ins as a form of protest against segregation and inequality. Sit-ins were meant to show the world how people would react when their privilege was challenged. Their privilege to be superior vs our rights to equality. Their privilege to tell us where to sit and when to stand was challenged by our right to be considered equal and our right to choose.
And then the sun rises again…
On August 26, 2016, another young Black man decided to take a seat at a time he was commanded to stand. Colin Kaepernick, quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, decided to remain seated during the playing of the National Anthem in protest to the wave of incidents of police brutality and excessive force that over 500 men, women, and children have experienced in America just in 2016, many of whom have been Black and Hispanic. Kaepernick’s actions led to a storm of disapproval from many who considered his actions unpatriotic and disrespectful to the military veterans who put their lives at risk for this country. Many Whites and misguided others took to social media to spew racial slurs and other expletives to show their disgust for this “rich, ungrateful Negro”. And just like his sit-in predecessors before him, his actions have exposed the worst in persons who claim to defend the same flag that is supposed to represent freedom of speech, protest and equality. Kaepernick’s decision to sit down during the National Anthem reveals his right to choose how to protest for what he considers injustice in America. A right no one should deny, and a right many have fought to protect, both domestically and abroad. It also reveals the privilege people feel they have to deny or suppress that right for others.
In 1940, the Supreme Court ruled that schools could force children to stand to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, regardless of their religious or personal beliefs. In just three short years, however, the Supreme Court overturned that decision on the basis that such ideological dogma is antithetical to the principles of the country. Perhaps the Court realized to force others to stand for something is not freedom for all but to acknowledge the privilege of some.
If the sun has exposed anything, it is the power of sitting in American history. Perhaps memory of Rosa Park’s bravery to remain seated when the privilege of a tired white man was challenged on a local bus has been forgotten due to all of the diversity on the L-train. Maybe on Jackie Robinson Day, when all of the teams in the MLB decide to adorn themselves in the famous #42 jersey, we can all truly honor the legend by sitting down during the National Anthem as he would have done. Probably not, however, because we have forgotten that the great baseball player and humanitarian once said, “I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag.” It appears many have forgotten these two soldiers who fought for Kaepernick’s right to join them in sitting. Injustice sometimes causes us to sit when privilege is not granted to all but only some.
There is no right or wrong way of behavior when exercising freedom to protest. It is not clear if Kaepernick knew he was drawing from the playbook of civil rights activists before him. There is no way to ascertain if he could imagine the headlines and news reports, the social media mobs and the public criticism, or the divided responses among colleagues. One thing is certain, his right to remain seated has reveals our tendency to want to legislate the rights of others when it causes discomfort for us. One of the problems that hinder unity in this country is the idea that we are obligated to determine what is right for someone else based on what is right for us. We seem to be programmed to find the “other” that is causing all of the worlds problems instead of doing our best to ensure that this great country is true to its pledge: Liberty and Justice for all!