As American as Apple Pie: Understanding Kneeling within the History of American Protests

By Camille Davis

New England Patriots kneeling during the National Anthem – CBS

NBC recently quenched suspense regarding whether they would show coverage of players who kneeled during the National Anthem at the Super Bowl. They said they would.

Super Bowl executive producer, Fred Gaudelli, explained NBC’s rationale to the Television Critics Association’s winter press tour. Gaudelli stated: “The Super Bowl is a live event … and when you’re covering a live event, you’re covering what’s happening. So if there are players that choose to kneel, they will be shown live.”[1] In other words, Gaudelli argues that showing players who kneel is not an endorsement of those players’ political opinions; instead, showing kneeling players is providing full coverage to Super Bowl viewers of a live event.

Background: How This All Began

Colin Kaepernick (center) and two of his teammates kneeling during the National Anthem. ABC.

The “kneel or not to kneel” debate began during the 2016 NFL season when former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the National Anthem to protest racial inequality. When Kaepernick began protesting, he explained: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”[2] Kaepernick made his statement as a response to the outcry from minority communities about the recent deaths of black men and women due to what was perceived as police brutality. Do you remember Alton Sterling? Philando Castile? Sandra Bland? These are just a few examples of unarmed African Americans who died during interactions with police or while in police care over the last three years.

Eventually, Kaepernick opted out of his contract with the 49ers after being told by the team that his contract would not be upheld in its existing form after 2016. The team’s decision not to allow Kaepernick to operate under the existing contract originated from Kaepernick’s need to play less after an injury in 2015. After his injury, his position as starting quarterback became tenuous. During the 2016 season, Kaepernick’s questionable playing ability after his injury and his protest of the National Anthem culminated into a situation that made the 49ers leadership see him as less than an ideal candidate for their leading position.  General Manager John Lynch stated the following: “We  [the team leadership  and Kaepernick] had a great meeting, and I think we had a very frank and honest discussion, and what we both agreed [to] was that under the current construct of the situation… it wasn’t going to work.”[3] Colin Kaepernick has not played football since the 2016 season. No team has signed or recruited him. Kaepernick is currently suing the NFL because he believes that the league’s owners made an agreement among themselves not to hire him.

 Kneeling as a National Movement and a National Debate

Although Kaepernick has been ostracized from the NFL, his form of protest has been subsequently imitated by many of his former teammates and by other players throughout the NFL. There are those, particularly the President of the United States, who find the protest of the players unpatriotic and offensive. This post won’t quote the detractors verbatim because they have been challenging the protest for over a year, which means their rebuffs are well-documented.

Essentially, critics argue that the unwillingness of players to stand during the National Anthem is an overt sign of disrespect to American values and to those who fight and have fought for American freedom. Some even argue that Kaepernick is hypocritical for taking a public political stance after not voting in the last presidential election.  GQ magazine’s pronouncement of Kaepernick as “Citizen of the Year” for its December issue made critics of Kaepernick and his fellow protesters even more strident. NBC’s subsequent decision to show those who may protest during the Super Bowl will unquestionably fuel the debate. Despite the controversy, one must not look at the recent NFL protests as historical anomalies. Instead, they are best understood within the context of American history. When seen in this light, Kaepernick and others who kneel are obviously more than agitators or provocateurs.  They are citizens who are using their public platform and their right to free speech to  bring  about  what they believe  is  necessary moral  change.

Protests of the Past

Vietnam War Protest, Year Unknown. Getty Images

If we think about it, our country was founded upon the idea of protests and it continues to  become   “a more  perfect union”  because  of them. Consider the following:

Wasn’t the Boston Tea Party of 1773 a protest of what the colonists perceived as unjust British taxation policies?  Didn’t the whole American Revolution occur because the colonists believed that their rights as British citizens were being compromised? Remember that the American Revolution  became a moment of separation of the  colonies  from   the English government because the colonists believed—either justly of unjustly—that the  English government dismissed the rights granted to them by the English constitution.

Kaepernick has not said that he is rescinding his citizenship. However, he is making the argument that the constitutional rights of people of color are not consistently protected.

The Women’s March the day prior to the Inauguration of President Woodrow Wilson, 1913.

Consider the women who marched for suffrage on March 3,1913, the day before Woodrow Wilson was inaugurated as President. These women were Progressive reformers who argued that precluding women from the vote kept them from fully engaging in citizenship.

Have you heard of the Bonus March of 1932? It was a movement when World War I veterans marched to ensure the government provided appropriate compensation and benefits for those who served during WWI.

Have we forgotten that thousands of Vietnam War Veterans protested the Vietnam War after serving in the War?

Finally, remember that Martin Luther King’s venerated “I have a Dream Speech” was delivered during a protest. The March on Washington occurred on August 28, 1963, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. The Civil Rights Movement began as a series of protests against segregation and Jim Crow laws of the South. 

If one correctly views Kaepernick and others’ recent protest with the right historical eye, he or she is able to see that today’s protest of  the  National  Anthem fit  within  the  long history of political and social discourse within  our nation.

Those who kneel are not isolated from the larger historical context of American challenges to government. They are not unpatriotic or un American.

It is characteristically American and unquestionably patriotic to use one’s position to challenge the perceived wrongs that are perpetuated by those who are in power. NFL players are using their public profiles to speak for those whom they believe society has forgotten. They have done this with the display of a gentleman’s knee.

Today’s protestors are not political or social outliers. They are as American as apple pie.

 

 

[1] Jason Lynch,” NBC Will Cover Any National Anthem Protests During the Super Bowl : Kneeling players‘will be shown live.”Adweek. January 10, 2018.

[2] Steve Wyche, “Colin Kaepernick explains why he sat during the National Anthem” August 27-28. http://www.nfl.com/news/story/0ap3000000691077/article/colin-kaepernick-explains-why-he-sat-during-national-anthem

[3] Nick Wagner. “If Colin Kaepernick didn’t opt out, 49ers would have released QB” March 3, 2017. http://www.espn.com/nfl/story/_/id/18808233/san-francisco-49ers-released-colin-kaepernick-opt-out

 

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