So once again Trump has started a firestorm to distract attention to the failure of his party, with complete control of the government, to pass a health care bill or anything else. Rather than talking about the tension regarding North Korea, America has been in a debate over NFL players protesting by taking a knee when the national anthem is played under the flag of the United States.
As the distraction has occurred and there is no way around it, let’s consider the biases that have come to light over the NFL players’ protest. Those on the social conservative right are incensed these over-privileged, majority Black, athletes are so self-absorbed they can receive millions of dollars to play a game and yet can’t let their left-wing politics go for just two minutes and stand under the flag that gave them the opportunity to play a game for millions of dollars. The political left, with self-righteous indignation, are in full support of these men, who they say are in the same breath and tradition of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Thomas Jefferson, for standing up for the high constitutional principle of free speech and against the sins of American racism that is pervasive in American culture. The players took a stand, they say, in the face of humiliation and attacks from the president of the United States.
OK. Enough of the hyperbole. The problem with the protest is that it protests under the wrong symbol.
I would call upon a little history for help. When the south succeeded from the Union because it opposed the election of Abraham Lincoln, it was not under the U.S. flag that they attacked Fort Sumter in Charleston, S.C. But it was the under the U.S. flag that more than 300,000 northern troops fought to put self-serving states’ rights slave owners under heel and to establish once and for all that the U.S. Constitution was the supreme law of the land.
It was not under the flag that the Klan ran wild and raped, killed, beat and imprisoned African Americans under the Black Codes and then Jim Crow. That occurred under state flags. It was under the U.S. flag and the Constitution it supported that the Supreme Court abandoned Plessy v. Ferguson for Brown v. Board of Education.
When the great Tuskegee Airmen and other African Americans fought and died in World War II only to come home and not be able to get a cup of coffee at a local restaurant, it was under what the American Flag stood for that Dr. King and others faced down Strom Thurmond, Barry Goldwater and George Wallace, the fathers of the modern Republican Party. Dr. King and many others faced down those fathers who defended states’ rights and argued that federal anti-lynching laws and laws against segregation were nothing less than acts of federal government tyranny. They faced them down under what the U.S. flag stands for, even when the nation had not lived up to those ideals.
When a police officer kills an African American man in the street and leaves him there for hours like his death and body have no value, it’s the U.S. flag and the laws it represents that demand an accounting and a process for that accounting. That accounting did not occur when the states’ rights Democrats, now Republicans, owned American politics from 1876 through the 1950s.
I don’t disagree with the players’ right to protest police brutality or social inequities. But the U.S. flag is the wrong symbol to protest. We should stand up for the U.S. flag because under it America has been made better. Under it, and what it stands for, slavery, Black Codes, Jim Crow, discrimination, forced sterilization of undesirables in America and various other types of social injustices all have been brought to heel.
No assertion is made that America has come to meet the full values and ideals of the U.S. flag and national anthem. But the point is under these two great symbols America has come a long way.
The Klan, the south in rebellion, lynch mobs in the south, racial discrimination all occurred under the confederate flag, the swastika and state flags of the south. Those flags made no pretense that justice and equality is the point of government. The U.S. flag does. In honest protest, the right symbol should be supported and the right symbol opposed.
It is this subtly that Trump missed entirely during the protests against the Nazis in Charlottesville.
If African Americans could fight and die under the American flag when its principles were not obeyed at home between 1865 and 1965, the flag, the National Anthem and what they represent should be honored now as a banner to deal with the injustices of our time now.
Arthur Garrison is an assistant professor of criminal justice at Kutztown University. This piece is the work of Dr. Garrison and does not reflect the opinions of Kutztown University or its faculty, staff, students or alumni.