Why are People Taking a Knee Today?
As you relax this Sunday you may see some people taking a knee during the national anthem. Why is this happening? Why won’t they just stand respectfully? Don’t they know my family died for their right to stand for the anthem and respect the American flag?
Why is this happening?
People are choosing to take a knee during the national anthem as a physical symbol of anti-racism. Former San Francisco 49er Colin Kaepernick spoke with NFL Media a year ago explaining why he chooses to take a knee, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. 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”.
Okay, so it seems like people are saying that they are choosing to kneel during the national anthem in order to stand with people of color who are being oppressed and murdered. But how does that actually help? Aren’t people still being oppressed regardless of people kneeling?
An action that was taken by one football player has spread to entire football teams, baseball players, musicians, celebrities, and everyday people. Musician Stevie Wonder took a knee at his concert last night and Pitchfork quotes him as saying, “Tonight, I’m taking a knee for America, our planet, our future, our leaders of the world, and our globe”. People are beginning to talk about why others are kneeling and what kind of oppression and marginalization people of color face in the US. White people are seeing, some for the first time, that people of color have a different experience in American than white people. Martin Luther King Jr. said in his 1967 Where Do We Go from Here speech, “Why is equality so assiduously avoided? Why does white America delude itself, and how does it rationalize the evil it retains? The majority of white Americans consider themselves sincerely committed to justice for the Negro. They believe that American society is essentially hospitable to fair play and to steady growth toward a middle-class Utopia embodying racial harmony. But unfortunately, this is a fantasy of self-deception and comfortable vanity”. It seems like maybe things may not be so different now than they were fifty years ago.
Why don’t they just stand respectfully? Don’t they know my family died for their right to stand for the anthem and respect the American flag?
While there is a Flag Code, it is not federal law and has been ruled unconstitutional by US courts. Instead, let us look at the constitution. The first amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances”. This amendment comes in handy when looking at the 1943 case of West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette. This case arose when Jehovah’s Witness children refused to salute the American flag in school and were subsequently expelled from school, threatened with time in a juvenile reformatory, and their parents were prosecuted for causing delinquency of a minor. The actions taken against these children and their parents was found to be unconstitutional. Two of the justices on this case stated their concurring opinion as, “Words uttered under coercion are proof of loyalty to nothing but self-interest. Love of country must spring from willing hearts and free minds, inspired by a fair administration of wise laws enacted by the people's elected representatives within the bounds of express constitutional prohibitions. These laws must, to be consistent with the First Amendment, permit the widest toleration of conflicting viewpoints consistent with a society of free men”.
So… this means that in order to fight for the US, one must fight for the right of others to not stand for the pledge of allegiance or to kneel during the national anthem? Well, if we are fighting for the constitution, we are fighting for the first amendment. According to US law, that means we are also fighting for people to express free speech. Kneeling during the national anthem is considered free speech. And if we take the time to consider why people are kneeling, rather than spend time thinking about why they shouldn’t, perhaps we could hear the experiences and needs of people of color in a way that allows us to understand.