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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Kneeling during the national anthem is patriotic

Posted on September 29, 2017. Filed under: Truth v. Myth, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , , , , , , |

We’ve noticed a lot of people coming to the blog to read our post What does the United States national anthem mean? as more NFL players have been kneeling in silent protest during the anthem before games. Debate over this protest has focused on whether it is unpatriotic because it disrespects the flag.

What does our flag represent? In the Pledge of Allegiance, we say that we

pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all.

Yes, we skip the “under God” part, which was tacked on during the Cold War (see The Pledge of Allegiance at 60) but even if you include it, you see that when we salute the flag we are committing ourselves as citizens to the principles of unity, liberty, and justice for all. “I pledge allegiance to the flag because it represents a nation that is united in offering liberty and justice to all.”

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.

The flag and the anthem are not about supporting U.S. soldiers, as many people have come to believe over the past decade. They are not supposed to represent the military. They are not supposed to represent an ultimatum to hostile foreign nations. The flag and the anthem represent our founding principles of a people united in maintaining liberty and justice for each other in every way, in every place in this country. So kneeling during the anthem is not an insult to our military.

There are many ways to fight for America that don’t involve being a soldier. Whenever you fight for liberty and justice for all, you are protecting America. Sometimes that battle takes place in schools. Sometimes it takes place in courts of law. It can and does take place in business offices, factory floors, newspaper articles, playgrounds, restaurants, living rooms, and yes, sports arenas. Wherever you stand up for someone else’s civil rights, you are fighting to protect America.

And so when athletes take advantage of a national stage to nonviolently protest the unpunished persecution and murder of black Americans, that is appropriate. They are respecting the flag and our country by showing that the words we sing in the anthem and the hand we place over our heart should really mean something. They are holding us all accountable for living up to the pledge we all make.

The anthem is not just a feel-good moment. It’s serious. It’s a symbolic recommitment of every generation of Americans to the whole purpose of America, which is to be truly democratic, to offer life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to all citizens, without malice, with liberty and justice for all. If that’s not being honored, it’s better to sit it out. Kneeling during the anthem is a powerful statement. No one does it lightly. It’s a red flag, a wake-up call to all Americans that there is an actual and serious violation of our national principles going on.

As one American said on the radio this morning, Just because you put on a uniform doesn’t mean you give up your right to freedom of speech. We would add that it doesn’t mean you give up your right to sound the alarm when our national principles are at risk. That’s what we call patriotism.

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TLC’s Who do you think you are; or, where were you in high school history class?

Posted on August 27, 2013. Filed under: American history, Civil War, Historians | Tags: , , , , , , , , |

We’ve been watching the TLC series Who do you think you are?, which answers family history questions for different celebrities. Chelsea Handler was able to put the fear that her maternal grandfather had been a Nazi to rest, Chris O’Donnell found out he had ancestors serving in the War of 1812 and the Mexican War, Zooey Deschanel learned about her Quaker ancestress’ involvement with the Underground Railroad, etc.

We were alarmed by the big holes in the story of Christina Applegate’s paternal grandmother, where data written on documents shown on screen was ignored to provide a comforting version of her family history. No self-respecting genealogist would have signed off on that episode. But more upsetting to the historian were the O’Donnell and Deschanel segments, where the celebrities in question displayed an astounding ignorance about some very basic moments in U.S. history.

Chris O’Donnell’s pride in his ancestor serving in the Mexican War was misplaced, as it was a war of naked aggression and conquest against Mexico, but we will let that go (see our series of posts on that war here). A quote from The LIberator from February 1847 on that war will do for now: “…the present war is offensive in essence. As such it loses all shadow of title to respect. The acts of courage and hardihood which in a just cause might excite regard, when performed in an unrighteous cause, have no quality that can command them to virtuous sympathy.”

Moving on to O’Donnell’s ancestor in the War of 1812, we learn with him that said ancestor was present at the bombardment of Fort McHenry outside Baltimore (see our article detailing the battle there). As the public historian at the fort tells O’Donnell that his ancestor manned the cannon that quickly became useless against the British ships and their long-range missiles, and how night fell as the ships continued their bombardment of the fort, O’Donnell remains completely unaware that this is the battle commemorated in the National Anthem—that this was the “perilous fight” that had “the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air”. The historian finally has to tell him this is the battle, and O’Donnell seems completely astounded.

There were those in our viewing group who believe he was told to feign ignorance so the television audience could learn it along with him, but we remain doubtful of this.

Moving on to Zooey Deschanel, we will also let pass the idea promoted by the show that Quakers were always abolitionists, and the first religious denomination to reject slavery in America—the Baptists were early abolitionists in the 17th century, though Virginia Baptists would do a 180 after the Revolutionary War. Methodists were also abolitionists, and many southern Quakers were slaveholders. It was not until 1776 that the Quakers banned slaveholding within their denomination.

The real problem here is that Deschanel had either never heard of the Fugitive Slave Law, or is a great actress who made it seem like she had never heard of the Fugitive Slave Law. As most of us know, the 1854 Fugitive Slave Law was only the boldest move of proslavery forces to not only steal liberty from enslaved people who escaped to freedom, but to enslave free black Americans, and encroach on white liberty itself. Whites were forced by the law to help slavecatchers, they were fined and jailed for failing to do so, or for helping an escapee, and whites were forced to live with the rescinding of the personal liberty laws they had voted for on a state level. The Fugitive Slave Law attacked the liberties of black Americans and white Northerners, and was the most galling example of the slave power perverting democracy and threatening free government to antislavery whites and even the professedly neutral.

We learn about the FSL when we learn about the Compromise of 1850, of which it was a part. To pacify proslavery forces who were angry that California was allowed to enter the Union as a free state, the Compromise allowed slaveholding and trading to continue in Washington, DC, and upheld the “rights” of slaveholders to their “property”—enslaved people—throughout the Union. This meant that if you lived in, say, Wisconsin, and had voted to pass personal liberty laws in your state outlawing slavery, those laws were overturned. Slavery would be upheld in “free” states, because slaveholders were allowed to enter free states and reclaim escaped people, and even pick up black citizens who had never been enslaved—the word of the slaveholder was accepted over the word of the black citizen and even the white citizens of the state. Whites were forced to help slavecatchers or be fined and jailed. Thus, slavery was basically enforced in every state of the Union, and outrage over this was expressed by many Northerners who had not previously taken a stand on slavery.

So the Fugitive Slave Law is famous and important, and it’s very hard to believe that someone would not know anything about it today, would not have even a vague recollection of learning about it, or just recognize the name. This reminds us that Kelly Clarkson had no idea what Andersonville prison was during the Civil War, and was shocked to learn about the brutal conditions there.

These are not obscure little corners of U.S. history; the bombardment of Fort McHenry, the Fugitive Slave Law, and Andersonville are major turning points in our national history. Only two men were executed for their role in the Civil War, and one of them was Henry Wirz, commandant at Andersonville. We sing about Fort McHenry before every sports event. We can only hope that viewers of Who do you think you are? have a better understanding of their history than its subjects do.

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