In his recent letter, Thomas Day suggested “kneeling during the national anthem transcends freedom of speech and is an overt form of treachery against the United States.” Perhaps it doesn’t conform to Day’s definition of respect or patriotism, but it certainly is a form of free speech enshrined and protected by our Constitution.
Imagine where we’d be today if our Founding Fathers had complied with British colonial demands to stand at attention and be respectful to the flag of their day? Perhaps you know their names: Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Adams, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and Paul Revere among others refused demands to respect the flag of a government that did not respect their rights.
In the mid-1800s came abolitionists John Brown, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Beecher Stowe who spoke against the status quo allowing slavery. In the early 1900s, we saw suffragettes like Susan B. Anthony who protested to secure a woman’s right to vote, and the 1960s brought civil rights advocates like Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and John Lewis who spoke against the status quo allowing racial segregation. Their dedication resulted in a Supreme Court ruling on segregation finding “separate but equal” to be inherently unequal.
All these people saw flaws in the government of their day and protested seeking improvements. Most were initially derided as disrespectful, dishonorable, or even criminal. Many were lynched and some were assassinated, but their courageous acts of protest are enshrined as an honored part of our history. Thus compelled by their conscience, these protesters have collectively made the United States a more just and perfect union for all of us.
Yes, Colin Kaepernick and others who have silently “taken a knee” during the national anthem have engaged in civil disobedience, but it is manipulative and unfair to suggest this act of protest disrespects the memory of veterans who served in the military. The same dishonest argument was used by conservatives to silence protests against both the Vietnam and Iraq wars. Remember that while boxer Muhammad Ali (a conscientious objector), was arrested, sanctioned and lost his boxing title for refusing to be drafted, Dick Cheney (a member of the white upper class) applied for and received five — yes, five — deferments to keep himself out of the same war. Hindsight shows Ali was right, Vietnam was a mistake and Cheney was a coward and a hypocrite.
The truth is Kaepernick and his fellow protesters have been no more disrespectful than Ali, and no less patriotic than Rosa Parks when she refused the status quo requiring her to give up her seat to a white person in the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama.
I’ll stand with Thomas Day for the national anthem, but I’ll also stand by those who choose respectful alternatives to what he and others narrowly define as acceptable or patriotic. As citizens, we’re obligated to seek improvement of the status quo. This requires lending protesters our ears and hearing their grievances.