Silent protest is a powerful lesson in civics and our Constitution

My friends would think I was trying to be one of the cool kids poring over the sports news these past few days. They know I’m never really sure which teams are in the Super Bowl each year. Professional sports and I are not well-acquainted.

But as I’ve found myself saying over and over again since January, this is different. I needed to understand why a player would “take a knee” during “The Star Spangled Banner” to protest what he sees as racial oppression and the continued sanctioned murder of people of color.

I needed to understand why a president would take the time to insult with a vulgarity the mothers of players who choose this form of protest and tell the owners they should fire these players for disrespecting the flag.

The issue of racial justice is fundamental to the National Education Association. It impacts our students every day in what they can hope to dream and in what opportunities they will or will not have. It impacts their safety. It impacts their very lives, especially at a time when we have a president who sows division, anger, and mistrust constantly, whether he’s talking about the “many sides” in Charlottesville, calling Mexicans criminals, or questioning the patriotism of Muslims.  

This week’s sports news that bled into the political section of my newspaper transported me back to my sixth-grade class the year I had a sweet student named Eric who came from a very religious family. His mother had a heart-to-heart talk with me as the school year began to let me know that Eric would not be standing for the Pledge of Allegiance nor singing the national anthem each morning.

She explained in a very simple way that in their religion, patriotic ceremonies that required reverence to a flag were seen as a form of idolatry. Recitations of patriotic hymns and poems were seen as offering prayers directed to the government and its leaders instead of to God.

She told me that Eric had problems in his old school when he did not stand, and she hoped that I would respect their wishes that he not participate, and that I would not allow the other students to shame him for being true to his faith.

That year was our teachable moment in civics. Each morning instead of reciting the pledge as we so often did without thinking, we studied it. We talked about what the flag meant as a symbol and whether or not we and past citizens of the United States had always lived up to powerful words like “freedom” and “justice” and “for all.”

We took a piece of the Constitution each morning and talked about the concept of respect for rights – especially the rights of those you disagreed with, even of those you didn’t like. We talked about free speech and freedom of religion and whether or not anyone should be punished for giving an unpopular opinion or whether they should be punished for refusing to say something they didn’t believe. I asked them to share examples. Eric’s hand went up with no prompting from me.

“I don’t say the Pledge of Allegiance because it feels like I’m praying to the flag, and in my church, we don’t do that.” And I said, “Good example, Eric.” Then I said to the class, “And according to our Constitution, does Eric have the right to sit quietly during the pledge?” The class answered correctly in unison.

“And according to our Constitution, if Karen would like to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, can she still do it even if someone else doesn’t want to?” Again, the class got it right.

“Great, tomorrow we’ll talk about freedom of the press.”

For different reasons, a football player—now emulated by others—decided not to say words that felt wrong to him. His silent protest is a powerful civics lesson. He is reminding us how far we have yet to travel to arrive at our beautiful national ideal: our magnificent vision of a country where all men and all women are allowed to be respected as diverse individuals and are treated as equal people with equal rights under the law.

We struggle still because the vision of equality has always been threatening to those who have power and see themselves as naturally superior. Women’s equality. Racial equality. LGBT equality. Religious equality. Equal respect for the poor. For those with disabilities. For immigrants. All movements for equality have been threats to someone.

In many ways, we are better than we ever have been in respecting equality under the law. But there are still so many daily tragedies in how people are treated differently because of their identity that show us that our vision and our reality are still struggling to find each other, tragedies that show us how injustice and unequal treatment are in the gap between vision and reality.

Some will shrug and accept it and say after all, life is not fair. But others, who love what this nation is supposed to be, will not let injustice go unchallenged. And so, a football player finds his civic voice in taking a knee where it will be noticed and understood, knowing his action will anger some, but inspire others. How wonderful that we have a Constitution that allows him to act in peaceful protest as his conscience guides him.

How sad that we have a resident in the White House who does not understand what my students understood in a simple sixth-grade civics lesson.

5 Responses to “Silent protest is a powerful lesson in civics and our Constitution”

  1. Irene Jones

    Thank you for this message, Madam President. There is so much controversy over this current issue that I have not made comments on any social media!

    • Jonathan

      But is Lily standing up for a real cause when she defends Colin Kaepernick or is she just stating the obvious (yes we all agree that they don’t have to salute the flag, etc.)?

      Consider an athlete that really stood up for his beliefs – Muhammad Ali.

      These well-paid NFL players refusing to salute the flag are pikers in comparison to this great American

  2. Jonathan

    I had been following the Trump/NFL story with low to moderate interest (I don’t really care much for professional sports) until I read NEA President Lily Eskelson Garcia’s latest “blackboard” entry from September 24, 2017 – “Silent protest is a powerful lesson in civics and in our Constitution”.

    Yes, Lily Eskelson, we all agree that no one should be forced to salute or pledge allegiance to the flag and it all goes back to a basic grade school civics lesson on the Constitution. Blah, blah, blah, etc., etc.

    But are these highly paid football players really going out on a limb by making this type of protest? Are they really making a statement concerning the Constitution as Eskelson implies? Are they really true heroes standing up for racial justice and all of the good stuff?

    No, not really.

    They are not risking anything by acting in this manner. They will still get paid their million dollar contracts all the while being able to tell everyone how they “took a stand” for what is right.

    What bull – and you fell for it Lily Eskelson because you are too tied up in your left-leaning political view of the world.

    Do you want to know the story of an athlete who really stood up for a real cause at the expense of his freedom?

    Consider the fate of Cassius Clay aka Mohammad Ali – the famous boxer. In 1967 he was convicted of draft evasion because he refused to serve in the US military during the Vietnam War. His boxing license was suspended; he was stripped of his title, and he eventually served time.

    Silent protest, like we saw at various NFL games is a powerful lesson in civics and our Constitution?

    Really, Lily Eskelson? A safe and easy silent protest is what it means to stand up for something that you believe in?

    It is so easy to take the side of Colin Kaepernick. But if you had been a teacher in the late ‘60s early ‘70s, would you have been on the front lines defending a man like Muhammad Ali?

    Would you have had the guts to teach your class about Civics using this draft-dodging pariah as an example back then?

    I somehow doubt it.

  3. Juanita Collein

    From Louis Armstrong to the N.F.L.: Ungrateful as the New Uppity is an interesting article on an attitude that is getting voice in this growing controversy. Jelani Cobb in “Daily Comment” addressed the idea ” hat visible, affluent African-American entertainers are obliged to adopt a pose of ceaseless gratitude—appreciation for the waiver that spared them the low status of so many others of their kind.” Did I not just hear that tone in the above comments? I, too, do not follow the NFL but I am aware that Colin Kaepernick is a free agent and is has been stated that it is in response to his silent respectful protest and an organizational attempt to send a message to others who might have followed suit. I am also aware that football is a dangerous sport which has no qualms about endangering these well paid individuals for the thrill and corporate profit of the game. So I believe Mr. Kaepernick deserves my respect and, indeed, my consideration. I stand for the flag and the anthem (and wouldn’t chew gum while it was playing either) and defend his right not to do so. Further, I believe what I would take from Lily’s civic lesson is I would try to use our freedoms of speech and assembly to hear others and to examine what I believe and that for which I stand.
    Thank you Lily for trying to use a good story to be the voice of reason to fellow citizens and educators. I will now put my head back in the sand and wait for the next distraction from real issues: freedom of speech, a free press, justice/equality for all, affordable health care, and perhaps, most of all, a civil society.

  4. Judith

    There is no more important need in our country right now than civic education and studying our constitutional form of government and the Bill of Rights. I am so very grateful that these moments have created opportunities that have forced us to do more of this.
    However, no one has ever corrected he who took the knee first, which was based on his mis-interpretation of the third verse of the Star Spangled Banner. If one did not know more about Francis Scott Key or what was taking place at that time, one could put their own spin on it, which is what was done. Francis Scott Key was a devout Christian, a reluctant patriot and against the war of 1812, which he believed was a political war. He believed peaceful means could bring the solutions. What most do not know is that he was a true hero among many black people. He spent many years in Court representing slaves, who at the time, wanted their Freedom. Key would Petition the Court on their behalf, without pay (pro bono) and his name was known among them. He wanted them to be free to return to Africa from whence they came (at the time many missed their homeland) and encouraged their return passage to Liberia – a place where they could live the way they dreamed.
    At the time of the war, when that song was written, thousands of slaves had followed the bribes and promises of the English, who basically appealed to them to desert their posts and fight against America on behalf of the British, for which they were promised their freedom. Many saw their death instead. It was this turn against America among many of the slaves that this third verse refers to and thus, he who bendeth down on a knee misled the country in his interpretation of what the song meant. As we so often do, we believed him and then person after person felt to join him. Compassion or ignorance? Who will set the story straight?
    When Francis Scott Key spent hours out on a boat watching America being bombarded by the British Fleet, he and the two other men with him must have felt a tremendous helplessness – something men do not do well. In those hours that led to his writing the Star Spangled Banner, he came to find within him a patriotic self – a humble and true love for America. For if the war of 1776 was to gain our independence, the war of 1812 -14 and especially the Battle of Fort McHenry was to force apathetic and independent citizens to unify and prove that they really did want to be free.


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