We don’t need a time machine. The past is still here and the future doesn’t look like it’s going to change too much.
In 1865, Abraham Lincoln and a Civil War helped to end slavery. A century later, Martin Luther King Jr. was killed for trying to give the descendants of those emancipated slaves full access to rights enjoyed by American citizens.
Another half of a century later, racial tensions still tug at the seams of our culture and the same criticisms and excuses are being used to keep people who would protest an unjust system in their place.
In 1960, King was being interviewed when a question was posed to him this way, “Former President Harry Truman recently said this: 'If anyone came to my store and sat down, I would throw him out. Private business has its own rights and can do what it wants.' Former President Truman is an old friend of the Negro, I believe. Isn't this an indication that the sit-in strikes are doing the Negro race more harm than good?”
Doesn’t that sound familiar? Here are the words of our current president last week, "Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, 'Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he's fired. He's fired,'" President Donald Trump said. "You know, some owner is going to do that. He's going to say, 'That guy that disrespects our flag, he's fired.' And that owner, they don't know it [but] they'll be the most popular person in this country."
King answered Truman’s comment by saying, “I do not think that this movement is setting us back or making enemies. It is causing numerous people all over the nation and in the South, in particular, to reevaluate the stereotypes that they have developed concerning Negroes, so that it has an educational value, and I think in the long run it will transform the whole of American society.”
On Sunday, many NFL players and teams answered the current President’s comments by standing arm in arm or kneeling during the national anthem.
The original protest has nothing to do with Trump. Colin Kaepernick started his protest of racial inequality – especially in relation to law enforcement interactions with people of color – while Barack Obama was still sitting at the desk in the Oval Office. Obviously, Trump’s cozy relationship and recent defense of white supremacists has led to the expansion of those protests.
There is just something about the alt-right crowd being called “very fine people” that makes minorities uncomfortable.
These athletes aren’t protesting the flag or the military despite how those who oppose them try to frame the debate. If white players were kneeling to protest long lines at VA hospitals or high tax rates, the resistance to the protest would be much different.
The players – most of whom are black - have every right to use the platform their talents afforded them to protest racial inequality. Their kneeling during the national anthem is not disrespectful to the flag any more than Dr. King walking into an all white diner is disrespectful of soup and sandwiches.
Both forms of protest actually honor the men and women who fought to preserve the constitutional right to protest for which that flag stands.
As the parent of a black child who will soon be a young black man, I decided I better teach him how to protest correctly since society’s acceptance and reaction to peaceful protests hasn’t changed much over generations.
So I made him a list.
Your protest should only be carried our where no one can see it to be offended by your oppositional opinion.
You may only protest after you acknowledge how good you have it as a young black man in America.
If you are given a platform to influence people, that platform may only be used to spout pseudo patriotic phrases and never draw attention to any cultural issues that might make someone uncomfortable.
That might be the most sarcastic list I have ever written. In fact, I teach my children the exact opposite. If change is needed, you’re wasting your time waiting for someone else to do it for you. My 13-year old white son was concerned recently that his school might not like a prayer time at his school’s flagpole. “See You at the Pole” is a national movement that organizes students to pray around their school’s flagpole each fall. It is student led and protected by the First Amendment. When my son said he didn’t think his school’s leaders would like it, I armed him with any arguments that might be necessary and told him if there were any issues, he can call me and I would be there in a heartbeat.
Of course, his school was completely accepting of a See You at the Pole rally. This is Oklahoma. Not many people push back against prayer time at any level. But the lesson I wanted him to learn in the situation is that he has rights as a citizen of this country and there are simply some things that people can’t stop you from doing – even if they personally don’t like it. I also let him know that I was in his corner if some type of response was required.
Dawit is only 10. He hasn’t had to fight racial injustice much. In fact, when there have been issues, his friends have been supportive and turned his few negative experiences into a net positive – knowing that people had his back.
That might not always be true and I will always teach him that if he sees injustice based on race or any other issue, that he should stand for justice – even if standing up means kneeling down.
As Dr. King said, “Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon. It is a weapon unique in history, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals.”
As great as America is, there are parts of our culture that still need that healing today. We would never stand for segregated diners today. We should have the same reaction to all racial inequality and stand with those who seek solutions.