Colin Kaepernick, the former Pro Bowler, Super Bowl participant and quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, couldn’t take it anymore.
The well-publicized deaths of blacks at the hands of police, the Black Lives Matter demonstrations and the political unwillingness to radically change the institutions and practices that maintain the nation’s status quo compelled him to protest against racial injustice.
He did this by refusing to stand during the National Anthem at NFL preseason games.
Now a black athlete that white Americans have cheered on the football field is being widely demonized for daring to “stand with the people that are being oppressed.” His position has placed him at the center of a national debate about race, but also about the fundamental right of an individual to protest against an enduring symbol of American power.
Kaepernick is being pilloried on social media for being unpatriotic — an ironic allegation considering the national mourning over the recent passing of Muhammad Ali, who was convicted of draft evasion after he decided, on religious principle, not to serve in Vietnam. Like Ali, Kaepernick decided to follow his conscience no matter the consequences.
On the same day he addressed teammates about his stance in a closed-door meeting, Kapernick calmly spoke to more than two dozen reporters in an 18-minute press conference. His answers were thoughtful and considered, some more sure-footed than others. With his large afro and full beard, Kaepernick, who is biracial, cut a broodingly dashing protest figure reminiscent of the Black Power era.
Parts of this summer, for better and worse, have indeed echoed the political and racial turmoil of the 1960s. Black athletes boldly entered the fray in 1968, with Olympic sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos celebrating their gold and bronze medals by donning black gloves and black socks (sans shoes, to symbolize poverty) and raising their fists. That same year President Lyndon Johnson’s Kerner Commission on civil disorders and racial unrest found that America was moving “toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”
Milwaukee, Baltimore, and Ferguson have borne out this prediction.
The Black Lives Matter Movement has inspired a new generation of black athletes, including NBA players LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, and Carmelo Anthony, who called for racial justice at this year’s ESPY’s.
Ali’s refusal of military induction in 1967 remains the gold standard of athletic protest, but Kaepernick’s stance is noteworthy in its own right, especially since it evokes national debates about freedom of speech and the very meaning of the American flag.
Historically, African Americans have fought bravely in every war since the nation’s founding, only to see black uniformed former soldiers beaten, lynched, and Jim Crowed back home.
Frederick Douglass, the civil rights activist who became a key advisor to President Abraham Lincoln, summed up the distance between American democracy’s symbol and substance in his epic 1852 speech, “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro.” Douglass argued that celebrations of freedom rang hollow in a nation where black lives were considered a species of property sentenced to generational slavery.
Martin Luther King spoke 53 years ago of the “fierce urgency of now” in discussing issues of race, war, and poverty. Less well remembered was King’s argument that “the greatness of America lies in the right to protest for right.”
Kaepernick’s critics miss the nation’s raison d’être when they chide him as being disrespectful to the military. American power, at its best, rests in the strength of its citizens — and anyone else — to debate ideas without fear of reprisal. Uniformed soldiers have fought, bled, and in some cases, died for this right. As have thousands of ordinary citizens who bled for democracy at home for freedom’s cause.
The flag is not the sole property of the military, political conservatives, or the right wing. Civil rights activists, African American veterans, and ordinary citizens have protested while proudly carrying the flag, while others have demonstrated by defacing, burning, or repudiating that very symbol. American citizens have the right to do both, and the failure to acknowledge this is a devastating blow to democracy and citizenship.
The Civil Rights Movement’s heroic period, from 1954’s Brown Supreme Court decision to the 1965 Voting Rights Act, is today lauded as a political and moral good, the consequence of a unified nation coming to grips with ancient legacies of bondage.
It’s a great story, except that it’s mostly fiction.
The civil rights era featured thousands of arrests; state-sanctioned violence against peaceful demonstrators; FBI surveillance of American heroes; the Klan and white supremacists gaining new standing; white and black students being murdered by law enforcement; and black children being spat on, cursed at, and arrested for trying to integrate public schools.
These distressing signs proved to be only the tip of the iceberg.
The Black Lives Matter generation confronts a legacy of inequality and institutional racism most brutally expressed through the criminal justice system even as it transcends those very confines.
Protests continue to cast a strobe light on racial injustice even as too many Americans prefer the status quo instead of perceived discomfort, want order to substitute for justice, and demand silence to quell dissent.
Kaepernick’s decision to speak truth to power and the ensuing fallout illustrates something important. The same nation that upon his death celebrated Muhammad Ali’s youthful rebellion has yet to develop the political maturity to engage in a dialogue with a young black athlete courageous enough to make his own righteous point: that there is a yawning gap between one of American democracy’s most enduring symbols and the nation’s treatment of black bodies who continue to fight, bleed, and die to preserve freedom at home and abroad.