Athletes, Protest and Patriotism

Teaching for Change situates Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner” within a historical tradition of athletes protesting injustice.
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Editor's note: This blog was originally published by Teaching for Change and is republished here with permission.

NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner” has provoked a national conversation about athletes, protest and patriotism. We share resources below for learning more about the history of protest in sports, "The Star-Spangled Banner" and the Movement for Black Lives.

Kaepernick explained why he will not stand for the anthem,

I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. ... There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.

There are a lot of things that are going on that are unjust [that] people aren’t being held accountable for. And that’s something that needs to change. That’s something this country stands for—freedom, liberty, justice for all. And it’s not happening for all right now.

Kaepernick is the latest in a long line of athletes speaking out against injustice.

In 1967, Muhammad Ali refused to be inducted into the U.S. Army, saying,

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?

In 1968, John Carlos and Tommie Smith famously raised their fists in a Black Power salute, with Peter Norman in solidarity, on the Olympic medal stand. Smith and Carlos’ famous gesture of resistance was part of an effort organized by amateur black athletes who formed the Olympic Project for Human Rights. Carlos said,

A lot of the [Black] athletes thought that winning [Olympic] medals would supersede or protect them from racism. But even if you won a medal, it ain’t going to save your momma. It ain’t going to save your sister or children. It might give you 15 minutes of fame, but what about the rest of your life?

Jackie Robinson wrote in his 1972 biography,

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 2003, at the start of the Iraq war, Division III basketball player Toni Smith turned her back on the U.S. flag.

A lot of people blindly stand up and salute the flag, but I feel that blindly facing the flag hurts more people. There are a lot of inequities in this country, and these are issues that needed to be acknowledged. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, and our priorities are elsewhere.

More recently, many college and professional athletes have used their platform to show solidarity with the Movement for Black Lives. NFL player Jared Cook explained why he walked onto the field with his hands up to show support for Michael Brown,

There has to be a change that starts with the people that are most influential around the world.

Kareem Abdul Jabbar, the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, wrote a piece for the Washington Post critical of those who are lambasting Kaepernick’s protest on social media, "Insulting Colin Kaepernick says more about our patriotism than his."

What should horrify Americans is not Kaepernick’s choice to remain seated during the national anthem, but that nearly 50 years after Ali was banned from boxing for his stance and Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s raised fists caused public ostracization and numerous death threats, we still need to call attention to the same racial inequities. Failure to fix this problem is what’s really un-American here.

Athletes are not the only people who have protested "The Star-Spangled Banner." Sylvia Woods, a pioneer in the struggle of African-American and women trade unionists, describes why she decided not to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at school in 1919 when she was 10 years old. She told her principal,

It says, ‘The land of the free and the home of the brave’ and this is not the land of the free. I don’t know who’s brave but I’m not going to sing it any more… I told him about coming through the park and if I could not swing in those swings in the park, and I couldn’t sit in the park, and I could only walk in Shakespeare Park, then it couldn’t be the land of the free. “Who’s free?” He didn’t say anything.

For more on "The Star-Spangled Banner," read "Colin Kaepernick Is Righter Than You Know: The National Anthem Is a Celebration of Slavery."

For more on Francis Scott Key’s support for slavery, read "Francis Scott Key Opposed 'Land of the Free'."

Teaching for Change, a nonprofit based out of Washington, D.C., provides teachers and parents with the tools to create schools where students learn to read, write and change the world.

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