One of my most personal relationships is with a civil rights icon who was one of the closest advisors and friends to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He once told me why he struggled with “celebrating” the Fourth of July, and his perspective gave me a more clear understanding of the deep, dark, soul-wrenching pain behind his decision.
You see, while the fourth of July has an ingrained and symbolic meaning for our nation at large, obviously it is the day on which the Declaration of Independence was signed, his one sentence answer was clear: “black folks were still slaves on that day”. There are a significant number of men and women who would be critical of his decision and more critical of his answer, given the fact that many black Americans fought against the tyranny of the British. But here is the counter argument, you have to respect the courage shown by Americans of all ethnic backgrounds who were oppressed, yet fought against the tyranny of the British alongside many who would have been considered “the oppressor”. The fact that they gave up their lives for the idea of freedom, only to endure post-war oppression and suppression for 100 years after the Revolutionary War (1775-1783), and then blacks were forced to live or die through anti-black Jim Crow Era Laws between 1877 and the mid-1960s, that relegated black Americans to the status of second class citizens.
Then there is our most filling national holiday, “Thanksgiving” where we gather around the table to share food in abundance with friends and family. Now, I am not going to be a hypocrite, I love celebrating Thanksgiving with my family, and I look forward to it every year. But I like how Valerie Strauss unapologetically wrote in her Washington Post article “Why we celebrate Thanksgiving every year”, she states, “What Americans think they know about the history of Thanksgiving doesn’t always square with the truth.” The truth is, the arrival of the Pilgrims to Plymouth Rock led to the deaths of 10 to 30 million native people. To my knowledge, I have no Native American ancestry, but Jacqueline Keeler, a member of the Dineh Nation and the Yankton Dakota Sioux gave her heartfelt account in the article, “Thanksgiving: A Native American View”. Her words masterfully and timelessly pierce the soul of real Americans with truth for the masses and justice and compassion of the Natives:
“I celebrate the holiday of Thanksgiving.This may surprise those people who wonder what Native Americans think of this official U.S. celebration of the survival of early arrivals in a European invasion that culminated in the death of 10 to 30 million native people.Thanksgiving to me has never been about Pilgrims. When I was six, my mother, a woman of the Dineh nation, told my sister and me not to sing “Land of the Pilgrim’s pride” in “America the Beautiful.” Our people, she said, had been here much longer and taken much better care of the land. We were to sing “Land of the Indian’s pride” instead.I was proud to sing the new lyrics in school, but I sang softly. It was enough for me to know the difference. At six, I felt I had learned something very important. As a child of a Native American family, you are part of a very select group of survivors, and I learned that my family possessed some “inside” knowledge of what really happened when those poor, tired masses came to our homes.
When the Pilgrims came to Plymouth Rock, they were poor and hungry — half of them died within a few months from disease and hunger. When Squanto, a Wampanoag man, found them, they were in a pitiful state. He spoke English, having traveled to Europe, and took pity on them. Their English crops had failed. The native people fed them through the winter and taught them how to grow their food.These were not merely “friendly Indians.” They had already experienced European slave traders raiding their villages for a hundred years or so, and they were wary — but it was their way to give freely to those who had nothing.”
And then there is Colin. Yes, Colin Kaepernick. You remember, the infamous quarterback turned activist, or as Senator Ted Cruz labeled him a “rich, spoiled athlete”, who became public enemy #1 for taking a knee during the National Anthem, proving that freedom of speech is biased in America. Remember my reference to the National Rifle Association advertisement regarding the speech of the woman narrating the advertisement, and how she has the right to freely express her opinions without censorship or restraint? What’s the difference? The difference is Colin made a personal decision and took personal responsibility for his actions and why he believed they were justified, while the woman in the ad recklessly incited fear, panic, and violence against other Americans’ First Amendment right to “conduct a peaceful public assembly” by insinuating that every protestor is violent and every protest is about resistance.
Let me be clear, as the son of a United States Army Ranger (now deceased), son-in-law of a retired United States Army Colonel, and a proud American, I support Kaepernick’s Constitutional Rights and protections under the First Amendment for making a political statement by not standing for the national anthem; however, I believe our Flag and our Anthem, both flawed, represent where we have the potential to go and not just where we are or where we’ve been. And while I disagree, my frustration isn’t with Kaepernick as much as it is with the conservative groups and Constitutionalists, not for their criticism and protest, but for their hypocrisy in being for the constitution when it is convenient, but against it when it is in opposition to their values, beliefs, and traditions. I have that same disdain for the National Rifle Association’s silence on the shooting of Philando Castile, when there was clearly video evidence showing an unstable police officer killing a law-abiding United States citizen who had valid permit to carry a weapon.
Colin Kaepernick isn’t the first or the last high profile figure to be condemned for their actions, or accused of being unpatriotic or anti-American. In 1967, Muhammad Ali could not find work as a boxer. It was because of his politics, primarily his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War and his uncompromising condemnation of racism and militarism. And remember the Dixie Chicks? In 2003, during a concert and just days before the invasion of Iraq, Dixie Chicks vocalist Maines told their fans: “We don’t want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States (George W. Bush) is from Texas”. Her statement, the bands political position, led to boycotts and public protest.
I once read a tweet by Linda Sarsour which stated, “We can disagree & still love each other, unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.” In the end, Freedom of expression and a tolerance for ideas that might offend should be American ideals worth fighting for.