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Star-spangled protest: White people don’t see America as Colin Kaepernick does

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The White House called it “objectionable.” Donald Trump called it “a terrible thing.” The San Francisco Police Union called it “embarrassing.” An NFL executive called it “treason.”

Because Colin Kaepernick sat down during the national anthem.

Kaepernick, the backup quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, decided that he’d deliver a silent protest over the way people of color are treated in America, especially by the cops.

Evidently, this sort of behavior hurts people’s feelings.

But that doesn’t mean Kaepernick should have stood up while “The Star-Spangled Banner” played. He’s part of a long history of American athletes publicly expressing opposition to injustice. In his autobiography, Jackie Robinson says he felt enormous ambivalence toward patriotic symbols. Remembering the 1947 World Series, he says: “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 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made.”

Muhammad Ali went to jail for refusing to serve in an American war: “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 and denied simple human rights? … The real enemy of my people is here.”

Tommie Smith and John Carlos, gold and bronze medal winners in the 200-yard dash, raised their fists during the U.S. national anthem at the 1968 Olympics.

You’d have thought they’d killed a bald eagle, fed it to a Russian bear and sung “The Internationale.” They were called “militants” and “black-skinned stormtroopers.” That last slur came courtesy of Brent Musberger, then a young sports reporter for the Chicago American, now noted for his on-air slobbering over good looking young women at college football games.

Let’s think about the “Star-Spangled Banner” for a minute. Most Americans have a notion that it’s somehow holy.

The tune is from “To Anacreon in Heaven” – Anacreon was a Greek poet of the 5th century BC – sung by an 18th century London gentleman’s club, celebrating art, booze, and sex. The lyrics were famously composed by Francis Scott Key, inspired by the U.S. defense of Fort McHenry in 1814.

Key is himself a problematic figure: A Maryland slaveholder who spent much of his career as a lawyer working against abolitionists. And if you look at the third verse of “The Star-Spangled Banner” which, thank God, nobody ever sings, you’ll see that Key was royally pissed off at slaves who ran away and joined the British forces in return for liberation from bondage:

“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.”

Ingrates. How could they prefer freedom to the fun of picking cotton and tobacco for no pay?

A lot of white people don’t understand that not everyone experiences America the way they do. In 1852, Frederick Douglass gave a speech called “What to the Slave is the 4th of July?”

To a slave, Douglass says, “your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sound of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanks-givings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy.”

Saying the Pledge of Allegiance doesn’t mean you’re a good American. Hollering “USA! USA!” doesn’t mean you’re a good American. Sometimes good Americans burn the flag; sometimes they refuse to stand for the national anthem. Why not? Isn’t the ability to criticize your country the most American thing of all?


Diane Roberts’s book “Tribal: College Football and the Secret Heart of America” will be out in paperback this fall. She teaches at FSU.

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