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.