In 1967, world heavyweight boxing champion, Muhammad Ali refused to be drafted to fight in the Vietnam War. He cited his religion and referred to himself as a conscientious objector. He said
My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father. … Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.
Though Ali did not spend time in prison, he was convicted of a felony (later overturned by the U.S, Supreme Court), was not allowed to box for three years, and, in that time, was considered by many to be a national pariah, a disgrace to his country and his race.
In 1968, sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, stood on the medal podium at the Mexico City Olympics. When the National Anthem was played both men raised their hands in the black power salute. Through a series of actions the two men were expelled from the Olympics. When they returned home they were the object of much scorn and received multiple death threats.
In 1947, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier when he began playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers. The abuse he received from all those who believed that he was in a place he didn’t belong is well documented. In his 1972 autobiography, Robinson wrote, “I cannot sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world.”
These three occurrences came to mind this past week as the fact that San Francisco 49ers quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, refused to stand for the national anthem at a recent game. He cited America’s oppression of people of color and police brutality. He has become the object of much scorn and ridicule, with there being many social media videos posted of people burning his jersey. Others have castigated him as a spoiled rich athlete who has personally profited in the millions of dollars and only wants to draw attention to himself as his career flounders. None of us know what truly motivates this young man’s heart, but I am going to take him at his word. Like those who went before him, he is expressing his disillusionment in a nation that so often falls short of its promise that all people will be treated equally.
Kaepernick’s personal act of solidarity with those being oppressed comes at a tense time in our nation’s history. Attention drawn to the death of African-American males in police shootings, have resulted in random attacks on police officers. And there is the constant debate about whose lives matter – Black Lives matter, Blue Lives Matter, All Lives Matters. The choice of language becomes very important in determining how one understands the current landscape and the history that has led us to this point. From the days of slavery to the Jim Crow laws just a generation ago to the current well-documented unfairness of our current justice system – the mistreatment of African-Americans in our nation is not something that can be ignored. When a young man of color protests what he feels is wrong in our nation, I’m going to take the time to listen to him and try to understand what his perspective is. Our history should teach us that he might will have something worth listening to.
In fact, history has a lot to teach us. Muhammad Ali became understood to be an advocate for peace and understanding among people. In 1996, the man who twenty-six years before was said to be a disgrace to his country, was invited to light the Olympic flame for the world. In 2005, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, were honored by a twenty-two foot high statue immortalizing that 1968 moment. In 2008 they were jointly given the Arthur Ashe Courage Award by ESPN. Once thrown out of the Olympic village because of their act against injustice and for human indignity, they were later said to be “the living embodiment of Olympic idealism.” Jackie Robinson is considered to be an American hero, whose moral courage is a testament to the human spirit and a guiding light for all of us. His baseball number “42” has been retired not only by the Dodgers, but by all of baseball. No player on any team can wear that number. I do not know how history will respond to Colin Kaepernick, but I do know how history has responded to these who took a difficult moral stand and paid dearly for it. They are called people of peace and courage and dignity and we now consider them some of the best America has ever had to offer as we seek to live up to our high idea of liberty and justice for all people.
I look through many lenses as I seek to understand the events that are presently happening. A veteran of the Marine Corps who loves my nation and the high ideas it strives for and who always stands for the anthem. A veteran who believes very deeply in the freedom of speech, even when it comes in the form of a protest. I am also a person of privilege who lives in a world where poverty and injustice grips billions of lives. And I am a person of faith who seeks to live in this world in the manner of Christ, who always stood with those pushed to the margins of society. I see through many lenses, but every lens tells me not to condemn Colin Kaepernick, but instead to listen to what he has to say. Because what I hope he ultimately wants is the same thing I want, a world where everybody lives in peace and hope with the dignity we all deserve.