BY REV. SUSAN SMITH
I listen with interest and anger to the people who say athletes – African American and those in solidarity with them – “taking a knee” are disrespecting the flag and, therefore, this country, even as those same people say little to nothing about the administration hob-knobbing with dictators and enemies of this country.
Do they not know the history of oppression and discrimination against black people in this country in general, and about discrimination practiced against them by the military in particular?
African Americans have fought in every war of this country, eager to support the country which did not support them, but in spite of that, this country treated them like second class citizens, while they fought in the wars and when they got back home.
While this country waged war against fascism abroad, making it possible for citizens of other countries to have equal rights under the rubric of democracy, blacks did not have and could not expect that they would be given those same rights in this country.
The Smithsonian Art Museum published a report in which they noted, “The discriminatory practices in the military regarding black involvement” made it clear that blacks were not values. The report said that “prior to 1940, thirty thousand blacks had tried to enlist in the army but were turned away. In the U.S. Navy, blacks were restricted to roles as messmen; …they were excluded entirely from the Air Corps and the Marines.”
In Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Executive Order 8802, also known as the Fair Employment Act, racial discrimination was banned. The order said, “It is the policy of the United States to encourage full participation in the national defense program by all citizens of the United States, regardless of race, creed, color or national origin,” but in spite of that, racial discrimination was practiced.
With the contradiction of people fighting for the freedom of others while they themselves were denied the same, FDR realized that the world would look upon the US as hypocrites, thus leading him to sign Executive Order 8802. This he did in spite of the protests of the Secretary of War, Harry Woodring, who said that “the enlistment of Negroes …would demoralize the weaken the effectiveness of units by mixing colored and white soldiers in closely related units…”
It is well documented that African Americans returning from war were treated horribly once they returned home; many whites apparently resented blacks in uniform and worked hard to remind them that in America, they were to remember their “place.” There is the well-known story of how African American soldiers were made to stand on a train while German prisoners of war were allowed to sit at tables in the train’s restaurant. Violence against returning soldiers was common. Who can forget the tragic story of Isaac Woodard, who dared ask a bus to stop so he could go to the bathroom and was later attacked by thugs and law enforcement officers who pounded his eyes with their nightsticks until he passed out; his beating left him blind. And yes, he was wearing his uniform when this atrocity occurred.
Those who balk at the athletes taking a knee, respecting the flag but protesting how, in spite of the freedom that flag represents, forget – or perhaps they never knew – that prior to World War II, 2.5 million African Americans were enrolled in some branch of the military, and 1 million of them served. (http://www.pbs.org/wnet/african-americans-many-rivers-to-cross/history/what-was-black-americas-double-war/)
For the Vietnam War, at a time when blacks made up about 11 percent of the total American population, they were 12.5 percent of the soldiers on the field. (http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/s_z/stevens/africanamer.htm)
Regardless of how hard African Americans fought for this American democracy, full human and civil rights were denied them once they returned. They could not get the loans for housing and education that white soldiers got, nor many of the other benefits. The discrimination that is being protested now is police brutality meted against so many African American males. It is not right in general; it is even more troubling as it becomes clear that the forebears of these young people were soldiers in the military, fighting for a country which has not ever respected them.
One has to wonder what white people would do and say had this been their narrative. Would they continue fighting for a country which treated them so poorly? The miracle of African American citizenship is that blacks have always fought for this country, in spite of the racial discrimination. To hear white people say that kneeling before a flag to protest police brutality is maddening, even more so when those same white people say that black people should be “grateful” for the treatment they/we have received in this country.
In the present political atmosphere, it is even more troubling to hear the criticism against those who kneel when the national anthem is played even as the president is acting against the interests of this country as he works to become “friends” with our enemies, completely ignoring the now well-established truth that Russia interfered in our election.
Who is the greater or lesser patriot, the African Americans who kneel respectfully as the national anthem is played, exercising their First Amendment rights, something their forebears fought to protect, or the president, who would shut them down even as his policies put America and its democracy in jeopardy?
When will the masses of white Americans wake up and own America’s sordid history when it comes to race? African Americans are not obliged to respect their oppressors or take their discrimination lying down. I am sure not many white people, who really do understand the need for human beings to receive justice, would have been much more vocal in expressing their anger over the violation of their rights. It is what we do in America. It is what humans should do when justice is denied
Rev. Susan K Smith is available for lectures, workshops and preaching. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit her page at www.crazyfaithministries.org.