Much has been said regarding the civil rights of professional sports players who refuse to stand for the national anthem, an obvious demonstration of their dissent against racism and violence in our country.
Dissent in the United States has a long and noble history. The Boston Tea Party in 1773 is a classic example. Though it included vandalism and the destruction of private property, it nevertheless left its indelible mark on the history of the founding of the United States three years later.
More recent examples abound. Many blacks were beaten and jailed in the 1950s and ’60s for refusal to submit to white supremacy. One of the strategies of the modern civil rights movement was the “sit-in.” Violence against the sitters was often the response. In 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks, a 42-year-old black woman, refused to move to the back of the bus so a white man could have her seat in the front of the bus. Following her challenge to white supremacy, Martin Luther King Jr. and others led sit-ins at segregated lunch counters. Though the signs said, “Open to the public,” the public knew those signs meant whites only.
People — Americans — were beaten for just sitting, because their sitting called attention to the problems of white power in a segregated society that falsely claimed equality for all people.
During the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, two Americans — black athletes — bowed their heads and thrust clenched fists into the air, a salute for black power, during an awards ceremony that included the playing of the national anthem. Each athlete was on the podium to receive an Olympic medal. Each wore black socks with no shoes to call attention to poverty. Many fans booed at the end of the ceremony.
Jehovah’s Witnesses refuse to salute the U.S. flag, repeat the Pledge of Allegiance or sing the national anthem. They believe their only allegiance is to Jehovah God. In 1940, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the Jehovah’s Witnesses. In Minersville School District v Gobitis, the court ruled that the children of Jehovah’s Witnesses who attend public schools could be compelled to salute the U.S. flag and repeat the Pledge of Allegiance.
An immediate, sometimes violent reaction toward the Jehovah’s Witnesses erupted. Some were lynched. Some homes and places of worship were burned. It was the run-up to World War II and the Witnesses were accused of being traitors. When the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit supporting the Witnesses, some argued the United States had not seen anything like this violence since the 1920s era of the Ku Klux Klan. In 1943, in the thick of World War II against fascism, the Supreme Court reversed its decision. In doing so, the court basically apologized for the ruling and said it never should have been made.
So are we Americans going to ask the Supreme Court to force professional athletes to stand during the national anthem? Is Donald Trump making a huge deal of this incident because he has no familiarity with the history of dissent and free speech in the United States? Or is this much ado about nothing to distract from the fact the first year of Trump’s presidency has been much ado about nothing?
Symbolic forms of protest are as old as the Hebrew prophets. Freedom means freedom. True freedom is for everyone. So long as anyone is not free, then no one is free.
People are free to do many things with which I do not agree. Whenever truth speaks to power, there are consequences. Those who hold the power — often the wealthy and the racial majority — do not like their places in society or their ideas and decisions to be questioned.
I suspect many of those vigorously opposed to professional athletes’ protests are the same who opposed much of the civil rights movement. They may believe that our white majority world is set up as God’s plan for the ages. For them, to speak truth to power is to question the very work of God in this world.
Truth is not diminished by confrontation with power. In the end, truth always wins, power always loses. Jesus’ words are eternally true: It is the truth that makes us free. Wherever there is bondage and oppression, freedom must continue to protest. And in these days of protest, there will be consequences if we do not respond wisely.