Taking a Stand by Sitting One Out

How Jehovah’s Witnesses paved the way for ball players today to take a knee

The original U.S. pledge of allegiance required participants to raise their hand toward the flag. That was 1892. By the 1930s, Fascist and Nazi nations had adopted a similar stance, leading to controversy in the United States. It was replaced by the hand-over-heart salute in 1942. (Photo/Fenno Jacobs, 1942)

I’m no sports fan. I watch exactly one sporting event per year and even that’s just for the free guacamole. But when President Trump cemented his race-baiting cred by calling upon the NFL to create a new rule requiring players to stand for the national anthem, I gulped. After all, for the first thirty-six years of my life, I sat down during the U.S. national anthem and kept mum during the pledge of allegiance. As a Jehovah’s Witness, under pain of religious shunning, I was forbidden from doing so. They’d fought all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court — some even died — to secure that right. For me, refraining from participation was a badge of honor. Say what you will about the religion (and I’ve said a lot), the circumstances under which they claimed that victory remain a stark reminder of how fragile our freedoms are. Here’s the story of one little sect’s battle to protect free speech for every American.

It was 1935. The height of the Great Age of Nationalism. Ideological hysteria was wreaking havoc on the international order, and several U.S. states emended their laws to make the participation in the pledge of allegiance mandatory in schools. The Jehovah’s Witnesses demurred. When they prayed “Thy kingdom come,” they meant it. Christ’s kingdom held their only allegiance and, like Shadrack, Meshach and Abednego of olden days, they refused to bow to a pagan nationalist god. In effect, they “gave a knee” to the Stars and Stripes. Local gentries disapproved. Witness kids nationwide were expelled from school.

The Watchtower Society—the Witnesses’ corporate arm — lawyered up. They took on the case of Lillian Gobitas, age 12, and her brother, Billy, 10, arguing in the courts for their constitutional guarantees of religious freedom. Gobitis [sic] v. Minersville School District ping-ponged up the appellate system until it landed at the U.S. Supreme Court. But the Court decreed that secular interests trump religious rights. The Witnesses’ case was denied. The case made national news. Nationalists from sea to shining sea went bonkers.

Witness-owned businesses everywhere were boycotted. 2,500 rioters in Kennebunk, Maine ransacked the local Kingdom Hall and torched it. Thugs in Litchfield, Illinois jumped a Witness man and repeatedly smashed his face into the hood of his car while a jeering crowd egged the them on. A regional Witness convention in Klamath Falls, Oregon, was attacked by a throng of 1,000 local “patriots” who overturned their cars while blasting the “Star Spangled Banner,” demanding that they stand up for the anthem. Elsewhere, they were shot at, beat up, tarred and feathered and lynched. One poor guy in Iowa was even castrated. If the cops weren’t spectating, they were pitching in. Said one sheriff who explained why he was running the Witnesses out of town: “They’re traitors, the Supreme Court says so. Ain’t you heard?” The ACLU estimated that 1,500 Witnesses had been assaulted in 335 separate attacks in 1940 alone. All for not saluting the flag.

Get the full story on the Klamath Falls mayhem.

But if there’s one thing for which Jehovah’s Witnesses are known, it’s persistence. Team Watchtower stood up for more kids, including Gathie Barnett, 9, and her sister Marie, 8 of Charleston, West Virginia . West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette [also sic] escalated to the Supreme Court. This time the Court ruled in the Witnesses’ favor. Gobitis was overturned. The seven-to-two decision was announced on Flag Day, June 14, 1943, in a majority opinion written by Justice Robert Jackson:

“To believe that patriotism will not flourish if patriotic ceremonies are voluntary and spontaneous instead of a compulsory routine is to make an unflattering estimate of the appeal of our institutions to free minds. If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”

In their concurring opinion, justices Black and Douglas wrote:

“Words uttered under coercion are proof of loyalty to nothing but self-interest. Love of country must spring from willing hearts and free minds, inspired by a fair administration of wise laws enacted by the people’s elected representatives within the bounds of express constitutional prohibitions.”

The scope of this decision was good news, not just for anyone with a god, but anyone with a voice. The Watchtower argued for freedom of religion, but the Court decided on behalf of free speech. It remains one of the most important cases in Supreme Court history, assuring First Amendment rights for every citizen.

Gathie and Marie Barnett

This story of heroism from the Jehovah’s Witness’ past makes current events doubly personal. Even though I’ve long left the Witnesses, when Trump’s evangelical leader, pastor Robert Jeffress, said that ball players who don’t take the knee ought to be “shot in the head,” it was, excuse the pun, triggering. I can only imagine how this must feel to Black folks who remember the violent reactions to their peaceful protests in the 1960s. Because that could happen again. As a nation, we’ve already been down this road. The first time was bad enough. Now it’s lethally stupid.

The point is, the dispute was settled. Barnette effectively shuts down the president or any other official “high or petty” who would try to bully citizens into standing for the national anthem. Trump is on the wrong side of the law, human rights and history. What he’s calling for is illegal. Well, we already knew that.

I may have more than my share of misgivings about having been raised in a cult. Yet some good did come of it: the Witnesses taught me to stand (or sit) for what I believe to be true—even in the face of threats and opposition. Later, after I lost my faith, I discovered a love for my country that I hadn’t allowed myself to express, which I hadn’t even admitted to myself. The first time I stood for the national anthem, I even got a little choked up, and I still stand with pride. Next time I’m given the opportunity to stand, however, I’m not sure yet what I’ll do. I do know that right now, I would turn to Colin Kaepernick—or anyone else who chooses to take a knee—and give them a hearty, proper, 45-degree salute.

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