We have been here before. Colin Kaepernick was not making a show of his not standing to sing the National Anthem. However, when he was asked by a curious reporter as to why he was not standing, he did not hesitate to state his position. In short, the specter of police violence against unarmed civilians with no accountability was the principal reason for his protest. As I stated, we have been here before on many levels. Henry David Thoreau refused to pay taxes into a government that upheld the institution of African enslavement and fostered wars of aggression. He was arrested for breaking the law. Thoreau defined his actions as “civil disobedience.” One can argue that Kaepernick’s decision to sit during the playing of the National Anthem is an act of civil disobedience. Yet, he is not breaking any law. Where is the ordinance which says that everyone must stand for the singing of the national anthem or be subject to penalty of law?
Two Supreme Court rulings in particular, speak to where we are on this issue. In 1940 the Supreme Court, in Minersville School District v. Gobitis, ruled that school district may compel students recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag. This 1940 ruling encapsulates the attitude that many are taking toward Kaepernick’s actions. Nevertheless, in 1943 the Supreme Court reversed Gobitis in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette by stating that based on First Amendment freedoms concerning freedom of speech and religion, it is unconstitutional to compel students to recite the “Pledge.” Singing the National Anthem can also be added to this understanding. Reciting the Pledge and singing the National Anthem are cultural issues that do not relate to governing. Such aspects play a role in socializing individuals are groups into a national identity based on the notion of patriotism. However, the bedrock basis upon which Americans are to be socialized resigned solely within the United States Constitution.
One of the more troubling developments that had emerged from this debate was the report that the police union representing Santa Clara police threatened to “boycott” the policing of 49er games is Kaepernick is not disciplined by the organization for “criticizing the police and refusing to stand during the national anthem.” It is my understanding that the police, which constitutes and an element of government, are sworn to uphold the Constitution of the United States. To withhold government services based on an individual excising their constitutional right is perhaps one of the most unconstitutional acts of all. On many occasions, police act as if they are above criticism and immune from checks and balances. The fact that police are rarely held accountable for the killing of unarmed American citizens is well known. One only need recall New York City police officers turning their backs to Mayor Bill De Blasio after he questioned police tactics in the death of Eric Gardner.
Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand during the singing of the National Anthem is rooted in a long history of Black athletes taking a stand against injustice. The Miami Heat posted a photo of the team wearing hoodies as a show of support for the family of Trayvon Martin. The L.A. Clippers symbolically threw their warmup jackets down at center court to protest the racist rants of then owner, Donald Sterling. Muhammad Ali refused induction into the armed services. This act of defiance almost cost him his whole boxing career. Tommy Smith and John Carlos are indelibly etched into our consciousness with their Black Power salute during the playing of the National Anthem at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968. Other athletes such as Jim Brown and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar are noted for taking critical social and political stands during their careers and after they retired from their respective professions. Although not an athlete, Jimi Hendrix played the National Anthem at Woodstock. He was also criticized.
Demagogues who are trying to make a negative example of Kaepernick are failing in their attempts. Other NFL players from around the league are beginning to sit in solidarity with Kaepernick and his cause. Like Rosa Parks, by sitting they are taking a stand. Military personnel, who might not agree with Colin Kaepernick’s position, are defending his right to exercise his freedom of speech. “Life, liberty, and a pursuit of happiness” form the basis of the American creed. It is an ideal that transcends racist and bigoted individuals who wrap themselves in the cloak of patriotism. Allow me to repeat this idea, “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Thomas Jefferson stated that when government becomes destructive of these ideals, it is the right of the people to institute new government. Kaepernick is not offering revolution. Yet, he is pointing out a vast area where government has become destructive of a major component of the American creed.
Anthony Neal earned his Ph.D. in political science at Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University). Dr. Neal is an associate professor at State University College, Buffalo. The author of numerous book reviews and journal articles, he has had his work published in the Western Journal of Black Studies, the Journal of Black Studies, and Black Issues in Higher Education. In 2014 Dr. Neal received the university’s Faculty Appreciation Award, was named Instructor of the Year by the university’s United Student Government, and Professor of the Year by the Student Political Society in the Department of Political Science. In 2015, he published The American Political Narrative which is a succinct yet poignant narrative about the development of the American political system and what is needed to maintain it. In 2016, he will publish a book of poetry entitled “Love Agnostic | from 9/11 to Charleston”
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