San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, joined by a growing chorus of other athletes, chooses to speak up and stand up to systemic racism by remaining seated or down on one knee during the presentation of the Star-Spangled Banner, the U.S. national anthem, at professional football games and other sporting events.
Recently at an after-game interview, Kaepernick asserted: “The message is that we have a lot of issues in this country that we need to deal with. We have a lot of people that are oppressed. We have a lot of people that aren’t treated equally, that aren’t given equal opportunities. Police brutality is a huge thing that needs to be addressed. There are a lot of issues that need to be talked about.”
He emphasized that he is not anti-American and that he loves his country, and, “I love people. That’s why I’m doing this. I want to help make America better.”
Kaepernick plans to continue his protests during the regular season and to donate $1 million “to different organizations to help these communities and help these people.”
Though Kaepernick and the movement within the sports world has garnered increasing support, an often visible and intense backlash has developed among those who accuse Kaepernick of disrespecting the flag and the country it represents. They also accuse him of misusing his celebrity.
Francis Scott Key, a 35-year-old lawyer and amateur poet, wrote his “Defense of Fort McHenry,” the lyrics to what would become the “Star-Spangled Banner,” after beholding British ships of the Royal Navy striking Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor during the War of 1812. The large American flag, the Star-Spangled Banner, raised exultantly above the fort during the U.S. victory gave Key his inspiration.
Ironically, the poem was set to the tune of “To Anacreon in Heaven,” a popular British drinking and womanizing song written by John Stafford Smith for the Anacreontic Society. The practice of playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at sporting events began during the 1918 U.S. baseball World Series during World War I at the first game between the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox.
According to the New York Times, September 6, 1918,
“As the crowd of 10,274 spectators — the smallest that has witnessed the diamond classic in many years — stood up to take their afternoon yawn [7th inning stretch]…the band broke forth to the strains of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’ The yawn was checked and heads were bared as the ball players turned quickly about and faced the music….First the song was taken up by a few, then others joined, and when the final notes came, a great volume of melody rolled across the field. It was at the very end that the onlookers exploded into thunderous applause and rent the air with a cheer that marked the highest point of the day’s enthusiasm.”
The idea quickly caught on and spread, even though the “Star-Spangled Banner” was not officially proclaimed, through a congressional resolution, as the U.S. National Anthem until March 4, 1931.
Today, the song’s first two verses kick off numerous events in addition to sports. Usually omitted, though, is the third verse, which some interpret as racist.
“And where is that band who so vauntingly swore, that the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion a home and a country shall leave us no more? Their blood has wash’d out their foul footstep’s pollution. 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.”
“No refuge could save the hireling and slave…” here has been interpreted as a not-so-vailed threat against mercenaries and Africans who were enslaved in the United States who joined the British after promises of freedom by the British if they fought with them.
By refusing to stand, place one’s hand over one’s heart, remove hats and other apparel from the head (an inherently Christian tradition going against the covering of the head by many other religious communities), and sing proudly the words and tune of this Star-Spangled Banner, Colin Kaepernick and the movement he has spawned has raised important questions concerning what it means to be patriotic and an active participant in our democratic process.
In addition, it raises question about the proper place for the playing of our national anthem.
The 50 stars and 13 strips on our flag of red, white, and blue represent our collective image of the United States of American. In this regard, we can define “patriotism” as: “a love for or devotion to one’s country,” and “nationalism” as: “loyalty and devotion to a nation; especially: a sense of national consciousness exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups.”
- How many of these people who exaltedly display the flag actually take the time to vote in local and national elections?
- How many of them volunteer to remove litter from parks or serve meals at soup kitchens?
- How many of them write letters to the editors of local and national media, and stay current on issues, laws, and policies affecting their communities and their nation?
- How many of these people have actually read and truly comprehend the United States Constitution?
- How many of them truly understand the histories, the peoples, the governmental and economic systems, the traditions, the languages – for that matter, the actual locations – of many other countries across the planet in contexts other than having to learn about these nations when international tensions arise?
While the United States is a beautiful nation founded on a noble concept, a vibrant idea, and a vital and enduring vision, as a country, it remains still a work in process progressing toward but not yet attaining and not yet reaching that concept, that idea, and that vision.
This is possibly what separates the patriot from the nationalist, for the patriot understands and witnesses the divide and the gap between the reality and the promise of their country and its people. The nationalist, though, is often not aware that a gap even exists between the potential and the reality.
A true patriot is a person who, indeed, loves their country (though not necessarily viewing it as “exceptional”), but also one who sees the way things are, and one who attempts to make change for the better. A patriot also views other countries with respect and admiration, as valued members of an interconnected and interdependent world community.
A large number of U.S. residents proudly display American flags flying and rippling in our strong winds on poles or porches in front yards. But patriotism and true commitment to our democracy takes more, much more; for it demands of us all the needed time, effort, and commitment to critically investigate all aspects of the great gift we have been given in our representative form of government. Anything less would be to waste our enfranchisement, to silence our voices, and to slap the faces of all who have gone before to envision and protect our form of government.
Reading of the intensive backlash against Colin Kaepernick exercising his constitutionally-protected right to protest brought back painful memories of witnessing the racial strife erupting like a volcano covering Boston and its suburbs with its flowing lava of bigotry during its history of mandatory bussing from 1974 – 1988 to achieve public school racial integration.
One photograph in particular captured the depth of racial prejudice in our city. In horrifyingly stark terms, a white man, enraged expression covering his face, gripped a long pole carrying the American flag as if he were wielding a sharp spear lunged toward a black man who was seized and held by another white man.
Symbolically, many people have grabbed and flung the flag as a weapon of intimidation to silence Kaepernick from reminding us of the racism that still continues to saturate our environment as the legacy of the original sin on which this country was founded.
Colin Kaepernich stands as a true patriot by remaining seated because he sees things the way they are and attempts in his fashion to make them better. Colin embraces John F. Kennedy’s challenge by asking not what their country can do for them, but rather asking what they can do for their country, and reflecting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s. words that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
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Photo: Getty Images