LANDOVER, MD - SEPTEMBER 24: Ryan Anderson #52 of the Washington Redskins locks arms with teammates as they kneel and stand in unison during the national anthem before playing against the Oakland Raiders at FedExField on September 24, 2017 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Patrick Smith Getty Images

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell quickly responded to Trump’s comments.

By Ellen McGirt
September 25, 2017

It appears that President Trump has managed to unite at least part of the nation.

In a red-meat ramble delivered in his signature “campaign rally” style, the president joked, cajoled, and alternately threatened his way through a speech in Alabama last Friday. The purpose of the visit was to support the now flagging candidacy of Senator Luther Strange, but a sidebar about American values – as in Strange has them – inspired this booming aside:

“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out. He’s fired. He’s FIRED!’”

And with that, unemployed Colin Kaepernick got a second chance to make his point, this time with a little help from his friends.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell immediately dismissed Trump’s comments as divisive, and dozens of others followed suit. Online feeds were filled with photos and commentary about all the players – like the Tennessee Titans and the Seattle Seahawks – who took a knee or linked arms. At least two national anthem singers kneeled in protest. So did members of the WNBA, who deserve more credit than they get for their longstanding interest in racial justice. Bruce Maxwell, a rookie catcher and military brat, became the first Major League Baseball player to protest during the national anthem. His teammates on the Oakland A’s “fear what’s next,” declares CNN.

Even Stevie Wonder, closing out the Global Citizen Concert in NYC this weekend, took a knee before he performed. His gesture prompted former congressman Joe Walsh to tweet, “Stevie Wonder takes a knee for the Anthem during a concert. Another ungrateful black multi millionaire.”

The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb places the negative response to these protests as part of a long continuum of disdain for black folks who dare speak out.

He begins with Louis Armstrong, who canceled an overseas goodwill tour planned by the State Department, after a high school journalist asked him what he felt about the situation at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. The governor had sent National Guard troops in to prevent the now-famous Little Rock Nine from integrating the school in 1957. The question prompted “Armstrong to refer to the Arkansas governor as several varieties of ‘motherfucker,’” explains Cobb, though the invective was changed by the paper to “ignorant ploughboy,” evidently. After Armstrong canceled the tour, counter-protesters, angry at Satchmo’s “lack of patriotism,” began to boycott his U.S. performances.

“Yet the belief endures, from Armstrong’s time and before, that visible, affluent African-Americans entertainers are obliged to adopt a pose of ceaseless gratitude—appreciation for the waiver that spared them the low status of so many others of their kind,” says Cobb.

“There again is the presence of outrage for events that should shock the conscience, and the reality of people who sincerely believe, or who have at least convincingly lied to themselves, that dissenters are creating an issue where there is none.”

A writer named Angela Denker focuses on a different aspect of this difficult history. Denker describes herself as a delightful mix of things – a sportswriter, a Lutheran pastor, faith blogger and a family woman. In this powerful essay, “The Power and Threat of Kneeling,” she analyzes Kaepernick’s professional skills succinctly, while pointing out that he is a man of a very specific faith – baptized Methodist, confirmed Lutheran, and a Baptist church-goer during college. He even has Psalm 18:39 tattooed on his arm. While his protest is part of his Christian tradition, Kaepernick is not afforded the courtesy that is bestowed on, say, a Tim Tebow. “Is it possible we don’t want to see his Christian faith because Kaepernick doesn’t look like the white, all-American, handsome Texas quarterback that white America believes is all that’s great about football and America?”

This has a long history, too. In April 1960, Martin Luther King described this spiritual divide on Meet the Press. “I think it is one of the tragedies of our nation – one of the shameful tragedies that 11:00 on Sunday Morning is one of the most segregated hours… in Christian America.”

And in many ways, it still is.

And it will take more than a blustery speech to unite this divide. “This is about a deep fear of what Kaepernick has tapped into,” says Denker. “A shaking of America’s Christian roots and a question about who owns the narrative of Jesus: white Evangelical Christian culture or African American liberation movements?”

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