“So proudly we held at the twilight’s last gleaming.” Who is we? Many will say Americans. However, when Francis Scott Key wrote his poem, the Star Spangled Banner, he was from a ship in the distance looking at the bombardment of Fort Henry. Francis Scott Key was a white, plantation and slave owning, college-educated man, who went on to become a lawyer, following in the footsteps of his father and his well-connected family. That is the “we” that proudly holds the twilight’s gleaming. The “we” Key’s not referring to in the Star Spangled Banner, are the 13.1% African-Americans, whose descendants were enslaved at the time, the 5.6% of Asian-Americans who would soon be prohibited to emigrate to this country, the 17.8% of Latino people whose land would soon be bought, stolen and bullied away from their possession, and the 1.3% of Native American’s who struggled to survive and merely exist, as the country that exclaims to be the “Land of the Free,” slowly looked less and less like home and more like prison. For these communities of people, the national anthem is a constant reminder of an immense privilege-- as an American citizen-- and a symbolic mnemonic of a history and pride not always granted to people who look like you. People who look like Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid.
Professional athletes reside upon the top tier of the social and economic hierarchy, as some of the highest paid, most influential and exceedingly controversial figures. With Michael Jordan’s success transcending the basketball court to the feet of young boys and girls internationally, to Billie Jean King dominating the tennis courts, while also advocating for the transparency and acceptance of the lesbian and gay communities, these two athletes were given an overwhelming spotlight in the public arena. What they did with that platform was entirely their choice, right? Navigating the space of private citizens and multi-millionaire, company endorsing figures of public prominence, major athletes are rarely allowed to speak on behalf of political issues.
That was until Muhammad Ali. Few black persons, female or male, made it to transracial success-- recognition among both blacks and whites. Ali did. A powerful force in the ring, the boxer was one the greatest of his times. Yet, Ali was very aware that despite his success, he was still a black man in 1960s and 1970s America. He took it upon himself to join the Nation of Islam, marched with the likes of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, spoke out against the Vietnam War, and never once dodged or backed down from fighting for the equitable treatment of marginalized communities. Many could say this was choice of his, to get involved in the wildly contentious fight for civil rights, but he had no choice. As black men and women in this country, to ignore the plight and perpetual systemic oppression, is to ignore your existence. Our skin is much more than the presentation of melanin, rather it is a continual reminder to many, even as far to say as the Founders of the this country, that our presence in this country is not valid or welcome. Ali was able to realize this. He was able to create a space for the thousands of prominent black bodies that would follow in his steps, to be celebrated for their athletic abilities. People like Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid.
During the NFL season of 2016, Colin Kaepernick, inspired by the unwavering courage and leadership of Muhammad Ali, decided that something must be done to address the numerous slayings of young, unarmed black persons. Kaepernick and Reid, two San Francisco 49ers players, chose to bring awareness to the indifference of violence and disenfranchisement against black and brown bodies, by peaceably choosing, “to kneel because it’s a respectful gesture. I remember thinking our posture was like a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy,” wrote Reid in a recent New York Times op-ed.
However many people have taken to disparage the sentiments of these two men-- including our current president. A recent Huffington Post article presented some of those upset with the taking of a knee: “‘I think honestly taking a knee maybe that isn’t enough for these players,” said Giovinazzo, a lawyer. “Maybe they should go beyond taking a knee and take a stand and vocally tell the public what it is that they’re supporting and what it is that they’re specifically protesting.’” Giovinazzo offers a valid opinion, as many Americans seem to be confused or lost by the meaning of the movement. For those who are privileged enough to feel honored and like their existence as American citizens is encompassed in the national anthem, may find the movement of taking a knee confusing. These people represent the Key’s “we.” Moreover, Kapernick has been quite clear on his intention, “‘I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick told NFL Media in August 2016. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.’” The Huffington Post article goes on to state other underlying criticisms of the flag, “Many of Kaepernick’s critics have argued that kneeling or sitting during the national anthem is disrespectful to the flag, the country, the military and first responders. President Donald Trump has repeatedly lashed out against the NFL protesters, calling them “disgraceful” on Tuesday.” In no way has Kaepernick or any other athlete ever insinuated or led on any behavior or commentary to incite any negative language towards our military or first responders. For the “we,” that has been so safely protected, supported and insured by the American judicial, political, economic and social systems, taking a knee towards their beloved Star Spangled Banner could be viewed as disrespectful. Thomas Jefferson, the one of the key architects of the Declaration of Independence and our Constitution, said in a letter from 1787, “The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish it to be always kept alive. It will often be exercised when wrong, but better so than not to be exercised at all. I like a little rebellion now and then. It is like a storm in the atmosphere.” As the ACLU states, “dissent is patriotic.” The colonists started a whole war in protest to the lack of representation they received in the British Parliament.
Taking a knee is not ‘disgraceful,” it is America. As American as the game of football. As American as protest, dissent and free speech. As “American” as the national anthem.