Fighting for Every Yard: Colin Kaepernick and Patriotism in African American History

Fighting for Every Yard: Colin Kaepernick and Patriotism in African American History

In recent days, Colin Kaepernick’s peaceful protest about the treatment of people of color in the United States has garnered both applause and condemnation across the fifty states. Lately, he has been joined by a teammate, a college teammate, an opponent, and soccer star Megan Rapinoe in kneeling or sitting during the national anthem. Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh, Kaepernick’s former coach, acknowledged Kaepernick’s right to protest but said he “didn’t respect the motivation or the action.” Harbaugh later apologized and supported Kaepernick’s motivation but objected to his “method of action.”[1] While acknowledging that a protest during the national anthem is difficult for some to observe, President Obama defended Kaepernick’s right to “exercis[e] his constitutional right to make a statement.”[2]

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Colin Kaepernick kneeling, taken by Michael Zagaris of Getty Images.

Kaepernick’s protest and the response to his motivation and method remind us of Americans’ complicated relationship with patriotism and the past. The American flag has flown over great national and moral triumphs. It flew, too, during our darkest days: the expulsion and massacre of native Americans across the continent; nativist riots against “foreign” faiths; the protection and promulgation of slavery; the capture of slaves seeking freedom; the institutional and cultural embrace of segregation and white supremacy; and the Japanese internment camps, just to name a few. The Star-Spangled Banner can evoke pride and pain, for some simultaneously. The past, like the present, is not a zero-sum game.

By speaking up and sitting down or, more recently, kneeling during the playing of the National Anthem, Kaepernick reminds us that “the land of the free” has also been the home of historical and contemporary racial injustice. This is not an unfamiliar story for historians. Over the past week, many have noted that Francis Scott Key was a slaveholder and attorney who attacked abolitionism in a series of high-profile cases.[3] Neither was the flag that inspired Key free from the stain of unfree labor. Mary Pickersgill sewed the flag with her daughter, two nieces, and Grace Wisher, a thirteen-year old African-American indentured servant.[4] By 1813, indentured servitude had all but disappeared for white Americans, but many African Americans remained indentured. In slave states like Maryland and non-slave states like Pennsylvania, indentured servitude often served as a cover for whites to hold blacks as slaves in all but name. Key watched the bombardment of Fort McHenry from a British ship in Baltimore Harbor and saw that American flag, battered but still flying, as an inspiring metaphor of American resilience, righteousness, and freedom. But for slaves in and around Baltimore, the flag represented continued oppression and bondage.

At times in this country’s history, African Americans have struggled with questions of whether and how to be loyal to a country that mistreats them. Black troops helped found the United States during the American Revolution and defend its fragile sovereignty during the War of 1812, but they also fought against the United States, deciding that escape to the British was the likeliest route to freedom. Despite the black contribution to American independence and the rhetoric of liberty and equality, slavery grew and white Americans increasingly assaulted black rights. Black abolitionist David Walker directed his incendiary 1829 Appeal to “the Colored Citizens of the World” and repeatedly used the term “American” to refer to whites only, warning them that if they did not abolish slavery, divine retribution was coming. “God will not suffer [African Americans], always to be oppressed,” he predicted. “Our sufferings will come to an end, in spite of all the Americans this side of eternity…‘Every dog must have its day,’ and the American’s is coming to an end.”[5] In 1842, when it seemed the U.S. might go to war with Great Britain over a border dispute, an unnamed correspondent of the Colored People’s Press urged black men not to fight for the U.S. in the event of war. “If war be declared, shall we fight with chains upon our limbs?” he asked. “Shall we make our bodies a rampart in defence of American slavery?”[6]

During the Civil War, black men fought for the United States and played a crucial role in Union victory. In the war’s early stages, however, Union officials banned black soldiers from enlisting, leading some African Americans to suggest that black men should avoid the war altogether lest they repeat the mistakes of earlier generations by fighting a white man’s war that would do nothing to end slavery or win black rights. Shortly after the outbreak of war, Henry Cropper, the captain of a black militia company in Philadelphia, publicly denied that he and his comrades had tried to fight for the United States. “We have more knowledge of our duty, and more dignity, than to offer our services” and had resolved never to fight for the U.S. except on terms of “equality with all other men.”[7] When U.S. officials began allowing black men to enlist at the start of 1863, the question of whether to serve took on new immediacy for black Americans. When Frederick Douglass urged service before a crowd of black New Yorkers that spring, and upbraided them for failing to enlist sooner, a black New Yorker named Robert Johnson challenged Douglass. By a “few well-spoken words,” Johnson explained that it “was not cowardice that made the young men hesitant to enlist, but a proper respect for their own manhood.” If the Union wanted black men to fight, it needed to “guarantee to them all the rights of citizens and soldiers, and, instead of one man, he would insure them 5000 in twenty days.” Johnson’s remarks occasioned “tremendous and long-continued applause.”[8]

Of course, black men served the Union in large numbers, making up approximately 10 percent of the Union army, helping to destroy slavery and win new rights and citizenship for black Americans. They changed the fabric of America, but the revolution in which they participated went backward. White Southerners, barely punished for mass treason borne of zeal to defend white supremacy, regained control of Southern state governments and constructed a new regime of white supremacy that denied black men and women the ability to enjoy the rights and citizenship they possessed in theory. By the 1880s, some black veterans like the AME minister Henry McNeal Turner turned to emigration as the way for African Americans to find freedom because, as Turner put it, they had been “de-citizened.”[9]

The reemergence of white supremacy post-Civil War, institutionalized in the South through the legal regime of Jim Crow, and perpetuated in the North through informal practice, meant that African Americans faced knotty questions about loyalty and allegiance to the United States into the twentieth century. These questions loomed especially large during wartime. During the First World War, some black leaders followed W.E.B. DuBois in urging African Americans to “close ranks” and support the U.S. war effort, while others like the black journalist William Monroe Trotter, the son of a Civil War veteran of the 54th Massachusetts, argued that Southern lynch law was a far greater threat to black lives than the Kaiser.[10] In the next World War, many African Americans embraced the idea of a “Double V” campaign that sought victory over Fascism abroad and racism at home. The term was coined by James G. Thompson who, after searching his soul, decided that he would fight for the U.S., but only with the caveat that he sought to destroy “our enemies from without…and our enemies within” who were seeking to “destroy our democratic forms of government just as surely as the Axis forces.”[11]

Issues regarding the treatment of people of color and allegiance to the United States remain salient, especially as the country reflects on the ways in which violence against black lives—during slavery, during Jim Crow, today—has been systematic, unprosecuted, and persistent. Kaepernick, to be sure, has not suggested that he does not owe allegiance to the United States; he altered his form of protest specifically to convey respect for the U.S. military and the country itself, while at the same time highlighting its flaws. But his gesture reminds us of the discomfort some African Americans have felt when they have considered the prospect of fighting under the American flag. African American considerations of how, when, and why to serve a nation that institutionalized inequality remind us that interrogation of our national symbols is essential to creating a “more perfect Union.”

Megan Rapinoe kneeling, from Twitter user @GBpackfan32.
Megan Rapinoe kneeling, from Twitter user @GBpackfan32.

American political protests are older than the terms “United States” or “Star-Spangled Banner” (just ask King George about his tea). Like antebellum black activists who rather than celebrate Independence Day, instead held protest meetings on July 5th, Kaepernick is appropriating a bedrock piece of American national culture to make a necessary point. He reminds us that racial injustice still haunts this nation. “American” does not mean–and never has meant–blind fealty to symbols or institutions. Being American is about holding America accountable when it fails to live up to its great promise. Megan Rapinoe, a member of the LGBT community, also reminds us that American injustice comes in many forms and that a sense of solidarity can lead us to stand, or kneel, with our oppressed brethren. Hopefully Kaepernick, Rapinoe, and those beside them will inspire other Americans to embrace the complexity of the past and present and junk the zero-sum game in which you either stand for the anthem, or you are against America. Sometimes the best way to honor the United States is by kneeling down when its anthem plays. We can do two things at once. After all, we are Americans.


[1] Dan Murphy, “Jim Harbaugh: ‘I don’t respect’ action of Colin Kaepernick’s protest,” ESPN, August 30, 2016, accessed September 9, 2016, http://www.espn.com/nfl/story/_/id/17416931/former-san-francisco-49ers-coach-jim-harbaugh-respect-colin-kaepernick-actions.

[2] Hanna Trudo, “Obama: Kaepnerick ‘exercising his constitutional right to make a statement,” Politico, September 5, 2016, accessed September 9, 2016, http://www.politico.com/story/2016/09/obama-colin-kaepernick-protest-227731.

[3] On Key, slavery, and “The Star-Spangled Banner,” see Christopher Wilson, “Where’s the Debate on Francis Scott Key’s Slave-Holding Legacy?” Smithsonian Magazine, July 1, 2016, accessed September 9, 2016, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/wheres-debate-francis-scott-keys-slave-holding-legacy-180959550/?no-ist.

[4] On the making of the flag, see “Making the Flag,” Smithsonian.com, accessed September 9, 2016, http://amhistory.si.edu/starspangledbanner/making-the-flag.aspx.

[5] David Walker, David Walker’s Appeal, in Four Articles; Together with a Preamble, to the Colored Citizens of the World, But in Particular, and Very Expressly, to Those of the United States of America (Hill and Wang: New York, 1999), 15.

[6] Untitled letter copied from Colored People’s Press, Liberator, April 1, 1842.

[7] Henry Cropper, “Note from Philadelphia,” Pine & Palm, May 25, 1861.

[8] “Great Meeting in Shiloh Church,” Liberator, May 22, 1863.

[9] Henry McNeal Turner to Blanche K. Bruce, Christian Recorder, March 27, 1890.

[10] On African Americans, black service and World War I, see William Jordan, “‘The Damnable Dilemma’: African-American Accommodation and Protest in World War I” Journal of American History 81, no. 4 (1995): 1562-1583; Adrienne Lentz-Smith, Freedom Struggles: African Americans and World War I (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009); Chad Louis Williams, Torchbearers of Democracy: African American Soldiers in the World War I Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010).

[11] James G. Thompson, “Should I Sacrifice to Live,” Pittsburgh Courier, January 31, 1942, in Neil A. Wynn, The African American Experience during World War II (Lantham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010) 110-111.

Brian Taylor and Tom Foley

Brian Taylor is an assistant teaching professor of history at Georgetown University. He received his PhD from Georgetown in 2015 for his dissertation, "'To Make the Union What It Ought to Be': African Americans, Civil War Military Service, and Citizenship." He teaches courses on antebellum empire building, Abraham Lincoln, War and American Society, and slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction. He can be reached at bmt36@georgetown.edu. Tom Foley is a doctoral candidate at Georgetown University. He co-edited "Memorable Days: The Emilie Davis Diaries" (www.davisdiaries.villanova.edu) and contributed to the Georgetown Slavery Archive (www.slaveryarchive.georgetown.edu). His dissertation explores the politics and the origins of the fossil fuel industry in nineteenth century Pennsylvania. He can be reached at tfoley2@gmail.com.

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