Sixty years ago today US Airborne troops escorted nine black students into Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, marking the beginning of public school integration in the South and in much of the rest of the nation. I have visited Central High, which is now a National Historic Site, and was struck by the reflections of hate depicted in the museum there – something I believed was foreign to us now.
Instead, I find that we are living in a time in which our President defends white supremacists and decries demonstrations that highlight the inequalities in our society still today. Students of all races can now attend public schools, but the quality of education has eroded in many places to the point that, despite dedicated teachers, more time and effort is spent on discipline than education.
Even more, it is economic opportunity that has eroded most in the time since Little Rock. Wealth has become increasingly concentrated in white elite households at the expense of minorities and even many of the poor working class whites that elected their President. The fact that this man rose to one of the economic elite beginning with a housing business that he was given by his father and that discriminated against minorities, simply magnifies the sorry irony that comes in looking back sixty years today. In the words of Ronald Reagan, “Are we better off today…?”
And so, with the effects of natural devastation still fresh in Houston, Florida and Puerto Rico, we instead are focused on whether the act of kneeling during the National Anthem should be banned. It was telling that the act or one man, Colin Kapernick, an excellent quarterback who is now unemployable in the NFL, has become a statement adopted by scores of players to refute the President’s tirades against free speech.
The flag naturally reflects, for some, a symbol of their way of life. The reality, sadly, is that opportunity is not within the reach of many. Nothing could be more American than for those left out to voice their dissent. The fact that they have chosen to do so by silently kneeling could not be more humble, respectful or appropriate as a personal statement. We have religious groups that do not salute the flag or sing the anthem. Such is their right and, as Americans, we should honor that freedom, not condemn it.
I have heard some say that a protest during the National Anthem is the wrong time to speak out. I might agree if the form of protest interrupted the act, but taking one knee is anything but disruptive, except to the consciences of those of us that might need to be more aware. The anthem verse we sing after all, ends with the words, “The land of the free, and the home of the brave.”
It saddens me that some attempt to co-opt the flag into a divisive symbol. I sometime hear them sing the words to the song written by Lee Greenwood after the Russians shot down Korean Air Lines flight 007, “I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free.” We should all celebrate that freedom. Through sitting at the front of the bus or at the lunch counter, one black woman and a handful of black youth spoke volumes and changed our land. Jesus wrote silently in the sand, when asked to condemn an adulteress. Tradition says that he wrote the sins of the hypocrites standing there, but the message in his silence survives to this day.
When all is said, a quiet act can speak volumes.