Image from The Progressive June 1967
Thanks to NFL player Colin Kaepernick, a lot of people now know the third verse to the national anthem, which concerns the hunting down of slaves who were promised their freedom when they joined the British side in the War of 1812:
No refuge could save, the hireling and slave, from the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave. And the star spangled banner, in triumph doth wave, o’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave.
We face the same root problem Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was organizing against until his death. Years ago, he laid bare the fundamental problem of this country that we love, or try to love. “The problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together,” King said. “These are the triple evils that are interrelated.”
When we see, feel, hear, and bear all the meanness and violence in this country, especially in this election year, King’s analysis screams loudly true.
The politicians, corporations, and even descendants of Confederates call the conscious person extremist. They try to embarrass or threaten the protester with their false patriotism, nationalism, militarism, and a police state.
The bullies in the sports arenas demand that we all should stand up, sing the anthem, salute the flag, and simply “thank them [the troops] for their service,” because that’s what the rituals represent—not the Constitution and the rights we’re all supposed to have in common.
The Constitution is the only thing that ties us together. It’s war and the constant support of war that divides us. And though I come from a military family and have served myself, I say no, we should not worship the military and militarism. We should honor service and sacrifice, but for the right reasons. Where’s the honor in fighting solely for empire falsely described as defending the nation? How did the war against Iraq and the devastation and destabilization of Libya, two efforts that Hillary Clinton supported, fit under national defense?
The bullies in blue demand that we should all stand up, sing, salute, and simply “thank them for their service” as police officers, even as they disproportionately kill unarmed black people. Sandra Bland died in jail in Waller County, Texas, because she didn’t use the appropriate turn signal. Terence Crutcher got the death penalty in Tulsa, Oklahoma, because his car broke down.
Blacks now face the ridiculously unfair demand that they interact with cops with their hands in the air. And that still doesn’t mean they won’t get shot. Look at what happened earlier this summer to Charles Kinsey, a behavior therapist, lying on the ground holding both hands in the air, trying to comfort his twenty-three-year-old white, male patient with autism who had wandered into the street with a toy truck. A North Miami cop arrived on the scene with the intent to shoot the patient but missed and shot Kinsey. After the shooting stopped, Kinsey asked the cop, “Sir, why did you shoot me?” The cop replied, “I don’t know.”
The enduring fear of blacks as the “enemy within” was expressed as a warning to whites by Alexis de Tocqueville in 1840: “If there ever are great revolutions there, they will be caused by the presence of the blacks upon American soil. That is to say, it will not be the equality of social conditions but rather their inequality which may give rise thereto.” Modern-day policing seems to operate on this idea.
If you’re a person of color, every day, in the most mundane ways, you’re going to be profiled. Two incidents stand out in my mind. Once I was in a car in Virginia traveling to Washington, D.C., with a white female colleague who was stopped for speeding. A young black trooper looked inside the car, looked at me, and asked the driver, “Ma’am, are you transporting this man?” Another time I was crossing the U.S.-Mexico border through Tijuana with three white ACLU colleagues. A border guard looked in the car at all of us, then, directing his question only to me, asked where was I born.
The day after Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem to protest the killing of blacks by police, a local reporter asked me if I thought his act of defiance was as significant as Muhammad Ali’s anti-Vietnam War protest. I said no, remembering that Ali gave up his livelihood, his freedom, and fought his sentence all the way through the courts. But then I thought about it a little more.
Kaepernick’s protest was surely in the spirit of Ali, and of Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists in a black power salute at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico. It’s in the spirit of Fannie Lou Hamer getting kicked off her sharecropper farm for refusing to take her name off the voting rolls. The white plantation owner told Hamer, “If you don’t go down and withdraw your registration, you will have to leave. Then if you go down and withdraw you still might have to go, because we’re not ready for that in Mississippi.” Hamer told him, “I didn’t try to register for you. I tried to register for myself.” She had to leave that same night.
Kaepernick follows in the tradition of Rosa Parks. Parks sat in the white folks section of the bus by herself. Others came after.
Many condemned Kaepernick, and showed how ignorant, spineless, bought-off, or downright dim-witted they are. Yet Kaepernick surely knows, given what he’s gone through, including death threats and possibly an early end to his career, that the ones who make the history books are the ones who stand up or kneel and say, “No more!” Or, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired!” He’ll be in the history books for something more than passes, runs, and touchdowns. Most of his detractors won’t even be in the footnotes. Those standing or kneeling with him are part of a new movement generation.
Those who want to see a progressive America are not the extremists. The extremists are those who think they can kill to make others bend to their will. They’re bullies. The bullies deny others due process and go straight to the death penalty, both here and abroad. The United States is the bully empire.
Dr. King laid out the cosmic context not only of the freedom fight but of the progressive struggle as well.
The triple evils cast people of color as the enemy of whites who feel economically marginalized. The triple evils are how the 1 percent divides those who ought to be standing together.
Jesse Jackson once said, “When people feel uncertain about their future, they fall back on what’s familiar to them, most often they fall back on race.” Donald Trump surely feeds uncertainty and pushes the race, religion, ethnic, and nationalist default buttons.
Yet it is the structural nature of white supremacy, racism, and xenophobia that gives him power.
Racism is Trump campaigning on building a “really huge wall” between the United States and Mexico when one already exists. But let’s not forget that under the Barack Obama Administration, more people have been deported, usually after spending time in privately run prisons and detention centers, than under any other U.S. President.
Hillary Clinton owes her nomination to the base of black voters, especially black women. Yet the voting-age daughters and sons of those women constantly remind Clinton that she once described black men as “superpredators.” And it is the lingering effect of Bill Clinton’s 1994 Crime Bill, and the ramping up of the war on drugs, that unleashed police profiling on black men and the resulting militarized police force with the power to shoot to kill under the catchall “I felt threatened” that black people face every day.
Now Hillary Clinton calls herself a “progressive,” because the label “liberal” has been demonized. But she’s really a neo-liberal who believes in elitism and Wall Street corporatism.
So where do we go from here? The answer, no matter who is elected President, is that we go back to streets, as the young people are doing.
Anyone who claims the label progressive, especially any white progressive, can no longer be a “stumbling block,” who, as Dr. King put it, “is more devoted to ‘order’ than to ‘justice.’ Who prefers a ‘negative peace’—which is the absence of tension, to a ‘positive peace’—which is the presence of justice. Who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.’ Who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom. Who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a more convenient season.”
This has been exactly the mainstream reaction to Colin Kaepernick.
I hope Kaepernick knows he is teaching the core idea behind King’s 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” When the white players in his league understand that lesson they, too, will stand up or kneel for change.
Kevin Alexander Gray is an author, Progressive contributor, past eight-term president of the South Carolina ACLU, and organizer of the Harriet Tubman Freedom House Project in South Carolina.