Colin Kaepernick: The National Anthem as a Symbol of Direct Action Protest

I wrote this research paper for a college class and wanted to share. I took out the references for this post, but here is the link to the original paper with references included: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1AUpcX87o1RUVDHGJayzBbNvUiX-Pxg5ofPITCmIseMM/edit

Throughout the history of activism in America, the Star-Spangled Banner has been a contentious point of debate and protest. Recently, Colin Kaepernick’s decision to take a knee during the playing of the National Anthem before NFL games has revitalized the debate. In this paper, I will analyze the symbolism of the Anthem, the history of direct action protest, especially with regard to the Anthem, Kaepernick’s protest, reactions to his protest, and what my research on the topic has led me to believe about the Star-Spangled Banner and Kaepernick’s protest specifically.

The Star-Spangled Banner is considered an important symbol of freedom, patriotism, and nationalism for many Americans. However, the symbolism of this song is rarely analyzed. While patriotism was an important part of American life in the 1900’s, the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center resulted in an outburst of patriotism and appreciation for the anthem. The meanings of national symbols is acquired through various means, one of which is how they are embedded in cultural and social practices. In the military, for example, the American flag figures prominently, representing honor and sacrifice. The link between the American flag, the Star-Spangled Banner, and the idea of patriotism has played a contentious role in the debate centering around San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s protest. However, in order to understand the debate, it’s important to understand the history of the Star-Spangled Banner and its author.

Born on a 2,800-acre estate in Maryland on August 1,1779, Francis Scott Key would become a soldier, lawyer, and, most famously, an amateur poet. After observing the battle between the British and American forces at Fort McHenry on the morning of September 14, 1814, Key penned a poem originally titled “Defense of Fort McHenry,” which would later become known as the Star-Spangled Banner. Set to the popular English drinking tune “Anacreon in Heaven,” the song was recognized as the American National Anthem in 1931. However, the history behind the Star-Spangled Banner isn’t so simple. While the National Anthem is only the first stanza of the original poem, Key wrote four stanzas in September of 1814. The first, second, and fourth stanzas are innocent enough, but the third stanza is a highly debated one among historians. Key writes:

“Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.

No refuge could save the hireling and slave,

From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave.”

In order to understand this verse, it’s important to know the context in which it was written. The Battle of Fort McHenry was one between American and British forces. Included among the British forces in this battle was the Corps of Colonial Marines, a unit made up predominantly of African American former slaves. About 6,000 African Americans fled to the British side during the War of 1812 on the promise of freedom from slavery. Most of these men ended up a part of the Colonial Marines. When Key references the “hireling and slave” whom “no refuge could save” from the “gloom of the grave,” it is likely he is referencing the escaped slaves of the Colonial Marines unit who the Americans fought at Fort McHenry. In essence, Key is likely celebrating the killing of African Americans. This interpretation, however, is not without its critics. Some historians believe Key’s mention of the “hireling and slave” is in reference to British forces as a whole, not specifically the African American soldiers. Key never clarified what he meant, so the verse is largely up for interpretation, but understanding the kind of man Key was provides support for the theory that his words relish the killing of black Americans. As an adult, Key grew rich and powerful as a result of the institution of slavery as a slave owner himself. Key was an opponent of the abolitionist movement, and he was quoted as saying that Africans in America were “a distinct and inferior race of people, which all experience proves to be the greatest evil that afflicts a community.” Given his anti-black views and the context in which the poem was written, it is likely that the third stanza of our National Anthem celebrates the killing of African Americans. Even though Key’s views on African Americans were not uncommon during his time, in my opinion, the fact that his poem likely celebrates the killing of African Americans or, at the very least, was not written for black Americans discredits arguments that African Americans should unconditionally stand at attention during the playing of the song.

Understanding the history of the Star-Spangled Banner is an important aspect of analyzing Kaepernick’s protest, but so is knowing the history of similar protests in American sport. While Kaepernick’s protest has made a large national impact, it is far from revolutionary. The American National Anthem has been the focus of protests in sports since John Carlos and Tommie Smith each famously raised a fist in the Black Power salute on the medal stand at the 1968 Olympic Games to protest racial injustice in the United States. Carlos and Smith were suspended and sent home from the Games, but their decision to protest inspired many other athletes to follow suit. Athletes like Wayne Collett and Vincent Matthews staged similar protests to Carlos and Smith, but the athlete who garnered the most attention with his Anthem protest before Kaepernick and after Carlos and Smith was Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf. In the 1995–96 NBA basketball season, Denver Nuggets point guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf stayed in the locker room or casually stretched during the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner. The protest went unnoticed until a reporter asked Abdul-Rauf about it. The point guard from an impoverished upbringing in Mississippi said he viewed the flag and anthem as symbols of oppression and racism, and standing for the anthem would conflict with his Muslim faith. After his comments and refusal to stand at attention, Abdul-Rauf was suspended and fined by the NBA but ultimately reached a compromise with the League. Abdul-Rauf would stand during the playing of the song but could bow his head in prayer throughout the duration of the Star-Spangled Banner. Abdul-Rauf stood up for what he believed in, but the results of his protest were personally detrimental. He quickly lost playing time, and by 29 years of age, was out of the NBA. He endured years of death threats, and, in 2001, Abdul-Rauf’s home was burned down in what he believes to be a racially-motivated act. Throughout the history of National Anthem protests in America, one theme is evident: sacrifice. Each athlete who has stood up for what he/she believes in has done so at a lasting price. Carlos, Smith, Collett, Matthews, and Abdul-Rauf all forfeited prime years of their careers, wealth, and popularity in the pursuit of what they believed to be right. Colin Kaepernick has likely done the same.

To many, Kaepernick’s seemingly newfound activism came as a surprise, but much of Kaepernick’s story foreshadows his protest. Born to a 19-year old mother and abandoned by his African American father before he was even born, Kaepernick was adopted by two white parents and raised in Turlock, CA. Kaepernick was part of the 2% of African Americans who populated his hometown. From a very young age, Kaepernick knew he was different from the rest of his family. Each year, he says, his family and he would go on summer driving vacations and stay at motels. Every year, a “nervous manager” would approach Kaepernick, asking if there was anything he needed help with, no matter how close he was to the rest of his family. Clearly, Kaepernick understood his racial identity, and how it impacted how others saw him from a young age. However, it wasn’t until he stepped on campus at the University of Nevada as a football player when Kaepernick began to find his voice as an activist on racial issues. During his junior year at the college, Kaepernick joined Kappa Alpha Psi, an historically black fraternity. Joining the fraternity was an important moment in Kaepernick’s journey toward social and racial activism. Reg Stewart, the director of the Center for Student Cultural Diversity at Nevada-Reno during Kaepernick’s time at the school, says that the issues Kaepernick is raising today are issues that he’s been thinking about since the day Stewart met him.

On August 14, 2016, while his teammates stood, many with their hands over their hearts, during the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner in the San Francisco 49ers first preseason game, Colin Kaepernick stayed seated. He would do the same for the next two games before gaining any attention. After the third preseason game, people started to take notice. Kaepernick was asked about his protest after the game. In explaining his reasoning, the quarterback said, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.” Kaepernick’s stance is that America claims to stand for liberty and justice for all, but is failing to live up to this claim.

Since Kaepernick first started protesting, many other athletes have followed suit. Kaepernick’s teammate, Eric Reid, joined him in protest, Jeremy Lane of the Seattle Seahawks took a seat on the bench during the Anthem on September 1, and Megan Rapinoe of U.S. women’s soccer kneeled during the anthem on September 4. Since then, NFL players from the Denver Broncos, Seattle Seahawks, Philadelphia Eagles, Houston Texans, Miami Dolphins, Kansas City Chiefs, New England Patriots, Los Angeles Rams, and probably more by now have staged their own protests during the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner. Kaepernick’s reach, however, extends further than just professional athletes. College and high school football teams, basketball teams, soccer teams, cheerleaders, and even bands have participated in protests during the Anthem. Clearly, Kaepernick has brought attention to an issue with far-reaching implications, but how are Americans reacting to his protest and message?

As Kaepernick’s protest gained more and more recognition, many famous Americans have weighed in. The leading scorer in the history of the NBA, best-selling author, and activist Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote an article for the Washington Post in support of Kaepernick’s message and right to protest, calling the act “patriotic.” Abdul-Jabbar is no stranger to standing up for controversial causes. In 1967, he joined with Bill Russell, Willie Davis, Jim Brown, and other prominent black athletes and leaders to hold a press conference to show support for Muhammad Ali’s right to object to being drafted into the Vietnam War. Like Abdul-Jabbar, Brown, an NFL Hall of Famer, has voiced his support of Kaepernick, saying the quarterback makes all the sense in the world, and that he is with him “100 percent.” Despite the support of many fellow athletes and activists, support for Kaepernick’s protest has been far from universal. In fact, according to a poll conducted by Reuters/Ipsos in September, 2016, 61 percent of Americans disagree with Kaepernick’s method of protest. Many prominent Americans have spoken out in opposition to Kaepernick as well. Ruth Bader-Ginsburg, a sitting judge on the Supreme Court of the United States, called Kaepernick’s protest both “dumb” and “disrespectful.” Drew Brees, a fellow NFL quarterback, has spoken publicly in opposition to Kaepernick’s protest, saying he wholeheartedly disagrees and believes Kaepernick should refrain from disrespecting the flag. Jerry Rice, an NFL Hall of Famer, has expressed a similar sentiment as Brees, saying he respects Kaepernick’s stance, but that the quarterback should respect the flag.

As I researched the arguments made by those opposed to Kaepernick’s protest, a theme emerged: an objection to Kaepernick’s method of protest. Many of those who opposed the protest cited using the flag and anthem as the focus of protests as their main issue with Kaepernick’s stance. This line of thinking reminded me of the objections to protests organized by civil rights leaders during the 1950’s and 1960’s. Leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X heard similar opinions from people who opposed their methods of direct action protest as well. In his Letter From Birmingham Jail, King writes:

First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who 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.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s words on the subject of direct action protest still ring true today. King mentions the “white moderate” who objects to methods of direct action protest. The white moderate who King mentions still exists today. While he may not always be white, this individual claims to respect Kaepernick’s message and right to express his views, but objects to the way he is demonstrating. However, this stance ignores decades of effective protest which has led to progress in America.

At the heart of Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of a civil rights movement was the idea of non-violent direct action protest. King and his followers engaged in a variety of protests, including sit-ins, boycotts, and marches, among other measures. While protesters heard similar objections to their forms of protest as Kaepernick hears today, they did not back down. The civil rights movement technically lasted until King’s murder in 1968, and it resulted in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. The methods of direct action protest by King and his followers incited sweeping legislation which guaranteed equal legal rights for African Americans. The refusal of King and his followers to back down in the face of not only similar opposition to Kaepernick, but threats and acts of violence helped to shape a new America.

While Kaepernick isn’t protesting the same injustices that King and his followers did, his message is the same: justice for all. The objection by many to Kaepernick’s method of protest: what they see as disrespecting America and those who fight for it, has and continues to serve as a distraction from the message Kaepernick is trying to convey. These people see taking a knee during the playing of the National Anthem as a blatant disrespecting of the “honor and sacrifice” of the military. However, there is more to the symbolism of the anthem than just the armed services. The anthem represents freedom and liberty, two of the center-most aspects of Americanism. Despite its various assigned meanings, symbolism in general is a wholly subjective topic; one which can be defined in many ways depending on context and interpretation. By taking a knee during the Anthem, Colin Kaepernick is expressing the very freedoms that men and women in our Armed Forces fight for every day. In fact, his protest even includes these people. When asked about those who see his protest as an affront to the men and women of the military, Kaepernick replied, “I’ve seen circumstances where men and women that have been in the military have come back and been treated unjustly by the country they have fought for… That’s not right.” So, not only is Kaepernick’s protest an exercise in the free speech that the Armed Forces fight to protect, but it is also a protest that encompasses the unjust treatment of these men and women as well. Many opponents of Kaepernick’s protest are so caught up in his method of expressing himself that they have failed to look deeper into what the quarterback is actually protesting. In my opinion, Kaepernick’s message is far more important than how he is expressing what he wants to say. It is critical that we listen to Colin. Instead of attacking him for his protest, as those who attacked Martin Luther King Jr. did, we should realize there is a problem. According to an analysis by the Washington Post, black people are 2.5 times more likely than whites to be killed by police. Further, unarmed black Americans are five times more likely as white Americans to be killed by police. In addition, police killings of Americans in general is on the rise.

On April 4, 2015, Walter Scott was killed by a police officer. After being stopped for a faulty brake light, Michael Slager fatally shot the unarmed Scott five times in the back as he fled the scene. The encounter was caught on video and disproved the original police report that officers aided Scott after he was shot. Despite the video evidence, the jury in Slager’s case for murder was deadlocked, resulting in a mistrial. Slager will likely be tried again, but, for now, he has gotten away with murder.

The case of Walter Scott is just one of many similar instances. Clearly, if these sorts of things can happen in America in 2016, we have a problem with policing. Colin Kaepernick’s protest has been criticized from all sides, but his critics have focused on the method of the protest instead of the message of it. Even though the Star-Spangled Banner likely includes lines celebrating the killing of African Americans and was written by an anti-abolitionist, anti-black slave-owner who called black Americans the “greatest evil that afflicts a community,” Kaepernick, an African American, is expected to stand at attention as this song is played. If we, as a society, can move past Kaepernick’s method of protest, we can have a meaningful conversation about his message. Hopefully, this is a conversation that will continue to be a part of our national dialogue and will ultimately lead to tangible solutions to the problem of police brutality in America.