In an 1857 speech, Abraham Lincoln explained the meaning and purpose behind the Declaration of Independence’s insistence that all men are “created equal” and that they are endowed with “certain unalienable rights,” including “liberty.” These noble sentiments, observed Lincoln, had no practical bearing on the patriots’ quest to separate politically from England. Nor did the Declaration’s authors mean to suggest that all people were actually equal in every respect. In fact, continued Lincoln, the authors themselves knew that many people at that time did not enjoy equality and liberty. So why did they include these ideas in the Declaration? “They meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit,” explained Lincoln. The Declaration’s principles would be “constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated.” By these means, “the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere” would be augmented. It is the gap between America’s heady ideals and the searing experiences of people of color that Colin Kaepernick and others protest.
As a professor who teaches African-American History, I must decide where in the syllabus to put the topic of the criminal justice system’s inequities. Do I address it early in the semester? After all, for most of American history, from slavery through segregation, the system was, almost by definition, an institution of oppression, for the job of law enforcement officers and court officials was to execute discriminatory laws and punish those who broke them. Do I address the subject later on? For example, sometimes I assign The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and a pivotal moment in the book occurs in 1957, when Malcolm dramatically challenges the beating of a black man by New York City police officers. Then again, when I use the PBS documentary Eyes on the Prize, the deleterious effects of the criminal justice system on people of color are examined in episodes concerning the late 1960s and early 1970s. I could take up the matter later in the semester, when we discuss the catastrophic consequences of the War on Drugs and the rise of mass incarceration, or later still, when we discuss Rodney King. Or is the slaying of twelve-year old Tamir Rice in 2014 the best place to tackle the issue? I have many options, and that’s why Kaepernick knelt.
It is immaterial whether Kaepernick and those who support him have been pulled over for “driving while black,” followed for “shopping while black,” or endured some comparable indignity. Nor does it matter whether they are millionaires. These are disingenuous arguments and, like the often hypocritical rhetoric about honoring the flag, they deflect from the issue at hand and malign the activists themselves. As the abolitionist John Brown remarked before being sent to the gallows in 1859, “[H]ad I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any their friends…it would have been all right…an act worthy of reward rather than punishment.” Like Brown, Kaepernick is animated by his deeply held Christian beliefs, and they command him, like many others on the slowly resurging Christian Left, to address societal injustices, and he has done so, with conscious-raising protests on the field and extensive charity work off.
But why was Kaepernick the first? He may have what sociologist Mark Granovetter calls a low social threshold—the willingness to go it alone, to forgo the security and comfort of public approval to endure scorn and worse. Others may have shared Kaepernick’s beliefs, but they could not become, like him, the tip of the spear.
Many have asked, “Why protest during the national anthem? Can’t they do it another way?” Such questions are as old as black protests themselves. And they’ve come not just from the activists’ opponents; even their allies have sought to set the boundaries of black expression. The famed fugitive slave-turned-abolitionist Frederick Douglass resented that white antislavery crusaders urged him to merely narrative the facts of his life while they handled the philosophy of the movement. Martin Luther King, Jr. was likewise reproached by sympathetic white ministers who, though never having felt the sting of segregation themselves, paternalistically told him that his demonstrations in Birmingham were ill-timed and counterproductive. For so much of American history, the attributes of freedom—and especially the ability to move and speak as one pleased—were deemed criminal activities for black folk. Those legal disabilities have been removed, but the attitudes that created and sustained them for centuries were never fully extinguished.
Gazing over the span of American history, one would be hard-pressed to find an example of black protest that most white people found acceptable at the time. The one exception may be the most dramatic and thus most ironic instance: During the Civil War, the U.S. armed nearly 200,000 African Americans, making them soldiers tasked with uprooting slavery and crushing the slaveholders’ rebellion. These black men in blue were activists literally fighting on the grandest stage. But the crisis passed, and 150 years later, merely wearing a hoodie to mourn Trayvon Martin, donning an “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirt to honor Eric Garner, and kneeling in silence during the anthem can spark outrage.
That outrage arises for understandable reasons. Protests are designed, not to create tension, but to bring to the surface, where it can be addressed constructively, tension that already exists. Kneeling is pacific, not impotent.
Kaepernick surely knew he would pay the price for taking a knee. It’s not just that he has been effectively blacklisted from football—no other quarterback of his caliber has gone unsigned for so long in NFL history. It’s that he would be villainized with a kind of ferocity reserved for black men who didn’t know their place. That’s the cross he bears so that the gap may be closed.
And the gap, arguably, has already closed a bit. Forty-three percent of Republicans think there is “a lot” of discrimination against white people; only 27 percent believe that’s the case for black people. Yet there are now some conservative commentators cautiously calling those beliefs into question, saying that, while they dislike the activists’ tactics, they acknowledge the legitimacy of their cause. Such concessions may not amount to much. But it may portend a shift in public opinion, and this, in turn, would open the way for policy reform. Indeed, Lincoln may have understood as well as anyone how activists effect change, for it was the radical abolitionists who “constantly looked to, constantly labored for” the lofty ideals articulated in the Declaration of Independence, and by these means they blazed a path down which later strode the Great Emancipator.
Eric Burin is a Professor of History at the University of North Dakota. He is the author of Slavery and the Peculiar Solution: A History of the American Colonization Society (2008) and editor of Picking the President: Understanding the Electoral College (2017).