The politics of justice are never off-limits

Posted on September 6, 2020. Filed under: Civil Rights, Politics | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Could it be more famous?

Mexico City, the 1968 Olympics, Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos are standing atop the medal stand with their gold and bronze medals, respectively, for the 200-meter race, and, as Australian Peter Norman stands by, they raise their fists in the black power salute.

Or did they? As some of us at the HP recall, there was confusion sown in the 70s and 80s about whether Smith and Carlos were giving the black power salute or just raising their fists in some gesture of support for humanity in general. The idea that American Olympians would sully the Olympics with politics–let alone black American Olympians sullying the Olympics with racial politics–was considered out of the question.

In 1968, however, there was no nonsense about it. Smith and Carlos never denied that the gesture was made in solidarity with black Americans. The Smithsonian Magazine has a full story about the moment, its genesis, and its fallout, in which Smith says

“I felt alone and free,” says Smith, now 72. “There was nothing there to protect me but God, nothing to distract my feeling of equality. … I was just alone in a position that millions were watching and I hope the millions realized that it was a pride in how I felt about a country that did not represent me. I was proud of the country, but even the greatest things in the world need attention when they’re not as strong as they could be. It was a cry for freedom. …My life was on the line for the belief in equality during the human rights era of Dr. King and what he stood for.”

Smith had help planning the moment of protest and solidarity in the name of black pride and power from founders of the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR), made up of non-professional black athletes who wanted to use the international platform to advance human rights. Smith included some military-step movements that were the catalyst for boos from the crowd, which had kept silent, perhaps while evaluating just what they were seeing. Smith responded by raising his fist again as he left the field.

The outcry from the U.S. was overwhelming. Smith and Carlos were suspended from the U.S. team, ignored by the press when they returned home, despite their medals, and of course received death threats. The main charges against them were that 1) they had misrepresented the United States as a land where black people suffered oppression; and 2) they had brought ugly politics into the beautiful Oz land that was the peaceful Olympics. When the next Olympics, in Munich in 1972, were torn limb from limb by the abduction and murder of the Israeli team by Palestinian terrorists, there were those who blamed Smith and Carlos for opening the door to politics and murder at the Olympic games.

The first charge was, or course, untrue: it was no misrepresentation of the U.S. to say that it protected discrimination in word and deed, systemic and personal. The second charge is worth some thought. We do appreciate the Olympics for their focus on sports alone, and the fact that they usually bring nations in conflict together in one place. Of course, the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany were an exception, and the U.S., China, and Soviet Union and the European nations it occupied have all boycotted the Olympics for political reasons since 1980. And fewer nations are opting to run the financial and security risks of hosting the games in an age of near-constant terrorism. At the close of each Games, we all breathe a collective sigh of relief if the only problem was lack of snow at a Winter Games due to climate change.

But it’s becoming more obvious as the 21st century progresses that we can’t ask athletes to step away from politics and still require them to positively promote the owners, teams, leagues, cities, and nations that hire them. If we ask athletes to represent, we have to provide them with owners, teams, leagues, cities, and nations that are worthy of representation.

Representing your country in the Olympics is very meaningful, but only if your country supports and protects you. If your country oppresses you, then demands that you publicly honor it at sporting events and competitions, then come back home to be further oppressed, that’s so dishonest that it’s bound to impact the athlete’s sense of integrity and even their performance. The athlete must begin to compete either in their own name, or in the name of those who do support and protect them.

We first saw the latter happen in the NFL, when quarterback Colin Kaepernick began to kneel during the national anthem to protest racism. He was quickly drummed out of the league, and is still staunchly forgotten by the NFL even as it sends out messages of support for Black Lives Matter. Since the much-needed rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, racial protest in the WNBA, followed by the NBA, MLS, MLB, and the NHL has become common. For the first time in its history, players in the NBA refused to play in a game in August 2020 to protest the murder of yet another black American by the police.

In the U.S., we are bound by a pledge to offer and uphold liberty and justice for all. When we do not honor that pledge, our athletes need to call that out, in public, in front of the world. As we say in our post Kneeling during the national anthem is patriotic,

The national anthem is sung at sports events while enormous flags are unfurled across the stadium or from the roof of the court. The flag is the symbol of the indivisible nation we are committing ourselves to support. This is a moment of good faith: the flag stands in for our country, and we honor it by promising to uphold its founding principles.

So the anthem is an entirely appropriate time and place to protest any violation of those founding principles of liberty and justice for all. In fact, it is the height of patriotism to say, “I’m not going to pay lip service to the flag by saying I give my allegiance to the principle of liberty and justice for all but then ignoring flagrant violations of that principle. I’m not going to pretend that what the flag stands for is not being systematically violated. I will not support a good faith gesture being made in bad faith.”

We disrespect the flag when we thoughtlessly salute it, when we salute it while ignoring the violations of our national principles, when we act like saluting the flag is patriotism. Singing the national anthem and saluting the flag are not in themselves patriotic acts. They can be, if they are performed with the serious intention of working to uphold the principles the flag and anthem stand for. But if we’re just mouthing words and waiting for the game to start, they are not patriotic. If we sing the words and put our hands over our hearts while doing nothing to fight for our country, that is not patriotic.

If they didn’t love the United States, these athletes wouldn’t bother to protest. If they didn’t want to feel proud of their country for living by its pledge to uphold justice, they wouldn’t care. In other words, as Smith states above, American athletes are “I hope the millions realized that it was a pride in how I felt about a country that did not represent me. I was proud of the country, but even the greatest things in the world need attention when they’re not as strong as they could be.”

Political protest shouldn’t have to be a part of sports. But for as long as patriotism is, and we sing our national anthem and honor our American flag at sporting events, from little league to the Olympics, we have a duty to protest any attempt to thwart the pledge we make to liberty and justice for all. Tommie Smith and John Carlos knew that back in 1968. Maybe by 2068 we will all acknowledge it.

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Optimism is the true moral courage: Shackleton and Obama

Posted on January 13, 2009. Filed under: Civil Rights, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , |

I just got around to reading Clarence Jones’ article on the upcoming Obama inauguration. In it, Jones, an advisor to Martin Luther King, Jr., makes a profound and wonderful statement:

“Dr. King had an abiding belief in the basic goodness, fairness and decency of America. He never abandoned his confidence that a majority of Americans would ultimately embrace the precepts of our Declaration of Independence: That all persons are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”

The power of King was that he didn’t say America needed to do something new, to become another people, to end racism. He didn’t say that racism was part of the fabric of America, the legacy of America, the nature of Americans. King said racism was un-American, that it contradicted our basic founding principles, and that racism turned us into another, lesser people. King had the founding principles and documents of the United States on his side, and he knew it. He called for a return to our true nature and our original commission. He denounced racism as having no part in the American experience, and not worthy of us as Americans.

So rather than angrily or cynically dismissing our founding principles as lies and shams, King demanded that we all live up to them. And he won, because he was right.

I’ve noted elsewhere that Barack Obama shares this quality of King’s; he believes in the founding principles of this nation as the best thing about us, and, when we live up to them, the only thing that gives us integrity in the larger world.

My title comes from Ernest Shackleton, the Irish explorer to Antarctica whose 1914-1917 expedition is the stuff of legend. His ship, the aptly named Endurance, was trapped in ice and eventually crushed. For 10 months, Shackleton and his crew waited for a thaw, and once the ship was gone, spent four months drifting in the open ice on an ice floe until they hit land at Elephant Island. Knowing they couldn’t survive there for long, Shackleton took a small crew in a modified whaleboat they had saved on the floe and rowed 800 miles across the Antarctic Ocean to land, then marched for three days and nights through the ice mountains of South Georgia Island to a whaling station. He briefly rested, then took a whaling ship back to Elephant Island to rescue the rest of his crew. There was not one life lost.

When an astonished reporter, much later, asked Shackleton whether he believed any of the men he had left at Elephant Island would survive for his return, expecting that Shackleton would admit that of course he had not, Shackleton replied of course he had. “Optimism is the true moral courage,” he said, meaning that if you don’t believe in what you’re doing, you will fail, because you will not have the strength of mind or body to succeed.

Obama is an example of that optimism. Belief in our founding principles in the face of their distortion is true moral courage. Believing we can live up to our principles allows us to do so. From King to us, that is the message for all Americans.

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We all have a dream

Posted on August 29, 2008. Filed under: Politics | Tags: , , , , , , , |

“I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.”

This could have been Barack Obama’s opening line at the DNC on August 28, 2008, as he accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination to run for president. But it was Martin Luther King, Jr.’s opening line on August 28, 1963, as he addressed the Americans gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

That 1963 gathering was a “demonstration for freedom” because Americans of all backgrounds met to demand the fulfillment of our nation’s founding principles of freedom of opportunity and justice for all. The 2008 gathering was also a demonstration for freedom, because again Americans met to demand that our nation’s leaders respect and obey the Constitution and Bill of Rights when governing.

But it was also a demonstration of freedom, of the enormous progress this country has made since 1963. In that year, if you had said that in 45 years, within the lifetimes of most of the people there at the Lincoln Monument, a black American would be close to winning the presidency, you would have been ridiculed. Few could have believed that King’s three little children would live to see a black American close to becoming president (by narrowly beating out a heavily favored female candidate; throwing that in would have made people in 1963 wonder what parallel universe was coming). It wouldn’t have been cynicism or despair that fueled the disbelief, but a pragmatic understanding of how much would have to change to reach that moment.

So a lot has changed. But, more accurately, Americans have grown and evolved, challenged their own prejudices, and worked for change. It’s true that some Americans simply submitted to change, others grudgingly went along with change, and others refuse to change.

But even more miraculous than those who worked hard for change are those who were simply born into it. Americans born in 1990 find it hard to believe that restaurants were really segregated, that they wouldn’t have gone to schools filled with kids of all races, that mixed-race marriage was once illegal. Much as they can’t believe you once couldn’t talk about homosexuality, let alone have gay TV or movie heroes, American young people can’t believe racism was once government policy.

Are many young Americans still racist? Sure. But for most Americans, racism is becoming more and more a personal thing, a private prejudice that one might feel comfortable sharing only with a few others, or expressing obliquely. Like sexism, and homophobia, racism is becoming something fringe, that only a radical element is willing to pronounce publicly. Rather than having one’s racism comfortably mesh with a full personality, now if one is publicly racist, at the office or on the stump, one is labeled a wacko and marginalized.

Nineteen sixty-three was indeed not an end, but a beginning. Beating racism underground to a shameful lair in the soul is just the start. But we can celebrate our progress. Barack Obama’s nomination is a watershed we can act on to destroy racism. Children born in this year will find it hard to believe a black American had never been nominated by a major party for president until 2008, because by 2026 it will be a commonplace. Women, gay Americans, Jewish and Muslim Americans will all be able to become president. This is a moment to push more change, and it would be fatal, as Dr. King said, to overlook the urgency of the moment.

Does that sound ridiculous? As ridiculous as saying in 1963 that a black American would be the Democratic candidate for president in 2008?

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Should God–and the rest of us–damn America?

Posted on April 29, 2008. Filed under: Civil Rights | Tags: , , , , |

I heard once again today the section of pastor Jeremiah Wright’s recent sermon in which he claims that God should damn America for its racism. This has caused uproarious debate.

This is not really an argument about racism or race. It’s about Truth v. Myth. And I’m afraid Wright is pushing Myth.

The attitude that says America should be damned–no matter how metaphorically–for its racism is the same attitude that says America is, has always been, and shall always be, a lie. It has never been a land of freedom, or truth, and is a shameful sham that weighs us down. America, from its Declaration of Independence to it 2008 presidential campaign, is a worthless heap of lies.

This is what really makes those who do feel angry about Wright’s comments feel that anger. They see that he is dismissing America as a lie that ought to burn on the scrap heap. And those listeners, as Americans, as part of America, take offense.

Contrast Wright’s approach to that of Martin Luther King. King didn’t strike a blow against America, he struck a blow for America and what it stands for. He recalled for all Americans, black and white, that their country is dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. He reminded us that segregation and racism are un-American. He would not be fooled into believing what racists said, which is that racism is consistent with American values, its founding principles. He would not cynically accept that there was no point working with whites to recover those principles because those principles were bankrupt.

King reminded us of who we are, of who we are supposed to be, and he forced us to live up to those values. He didn’t let anyone off the hook for America’s failure to live up to its principles, and for that we owe him so much. He was fired up for America, and led millions of others to feel the same way.

The genius of this (besides the fact that it was true) was that anyone who opposed him came off looking anti-American. They were revealed as racist drags on the democratic system. They looked like the moral dinosaurs that they were. They were forced to attack women and children to make their point, and Americans revolted at that.

So we should not damn America. We should rescue it. We can do that by recalling our history and our founding principles and doing our utmost to yank the country back into line with those principles whenever we can. That way, anyone who opposes us looks like the anti-American obstacle that they are.

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