Trump said NFL owners should fire any player who refused to stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner,” adding that owners should reply to such kneeling protestors by saying, “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, he’s fired. He’s fired!”
Trump’s comments ignited a national debate about the autonomy of the NFL, players’ First Amendment rights, and respect for the American flag and the military – all of which diverted attention from the issue that initially sparked the protests on the field: racial injustice.
Even Fox News anchor Shepard Smith recognized the diversion, saying “[Trump and his surrogates are] able to say, ‘Oh, they’re attacking the national anthem, they’re attacking the troops, they’re attacking the flag.’ None of which they’re doing.”
“They’re not doing any of that,” he added. “They’re upset about racial injustice in the country and they’re upset about the things that the president has said, and yet he’s able to turn it around for his base.”
Kneeling for Justice
The protests in question began last year when Colin Kaepernick, then-quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, began kneeling during the pre-game national anthem as a silent demonstration against injustices faced by African Americans and other racial minorities – particularly the shooting deaths of unarmed black males by police.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick said in an August 2016 interview with NFL Media.
“To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder,” added Kaepernick, referring to the police officers who have killed black men and yet have not been convicted of (or in some cases, even charged with) any crimes.
A June article from The Root provides evidence to back up Kaepernick’s statements:
“Of the 10,000-plus police killings since 2005, only 82 cops were charged with crimes. So despite the fact that 90 percent of the people killed by police are unarmed; even though police kill blacks at 2.5 times the rate of whites; regardless of the fact that blacks are 13 percent of the population but 27 percent of the people killed by cops; even though less than one-half of one-tenth of 1 percent of cops who take the lives of black people are ever convicted …
“In the past 13 years, not a single law-enforcement officer has been convicted of intentionally murdering a black man.”
From #TakeAKnee to “Lynch Kaepernick”
During the NFL games on September 24, dozens of players, coaches, and owners across the country responded to Trump’s comments by “taking a knee” or standing with linked arms during “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Alternatively, some teams remained in the locker room altogether for the national anthem.
Apparently offended by these actions, a Missouri bar owner created a doormat formed by taping together two football jerseys on the pavement outside his establishment.
The jerseys featured the names of Kaepernick and Marshawn Lynch — an African American running back for the Oakland Raiders who had sat during that day’s pre-game national anthem.
The selection and arrangement of jerseys “meant that the message patrons received was ‘Lynch Kaepernick.’”
Historical Thread Connecting Slavery, Lynching, Police Shootings, and Mass Incarceration
The Missouri bar owner claimed the doormat was “not a race thing.”
Regardless of his intentions, it’s possible to draw a straight line from lynching to the police shootings of unarmed black men being protested by Kaepernick, as well as to the current mass incarceration of African Americans. And it all ties back to what has been called America’s “original sin”: slavery.
EJI outlined this historical connection in greater detail in a report titled “Lynching In America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror”:
“In America, there is a legacy of racial inequality shaped by the enslavement of millions of black people. The era of slavery was followed by decades of terrorism and racial subordination most dramatically evidenced by lynching…
“The history of terror lynching complicates contemporary issues of race, punishment, crime, and justice. Mass incarceration, excessive penal punishment, disproportionate sentencing of racial minorities, and police abuse of people of color reveal problems in American society that were framed in the terror era.”
The purpose of the report was to “confront the injustice, inequality, anguish, and suffering that racial terror and violence created,” explained the nonprofit organization, calling it “essential that we begin to discuss our history of racial injustice more soberly and to understand the implications of our past in addressing the challenges of the present.”
Lynching In America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror
So, what is America’s true history in regard to lynching?
First, as referenced above, it’s important to recognize that lynching was part of the tragic legacy of slavery.
As EJI’s website explains, “After slavery was formally abolished, lynching emerged as a vicious tool of racial control to reestablish white supremacy and suppress black civil rights.”
Second, Americans must understand how widespread the practice of lynching was in the 19th and 20th centuries.
According to EJI’s report, from the end of Reconstruction in 1877 until 1950, over 4,000 African Americans were lynched across the South. An additional 300 lynchings took place in other U.S. states.
EJI Partners with Google to Create Interactive Digital Platform
In order to help people of all races better grasp the prevalence of lynching, EJI partnered with Google to turn its 2015 “Lynching In America” report into an interactive multimedia experience.
The initiative, launched in June 2017, is an “interactive digital platform that combines historical data and personal stories so people can explore one of the darkest passages in the nation’s history,” described the USA Today.
Buzzfeed added, “The site includes an interactive map cataloging how many lynchings were reported in each state, and in individual counties. It highlights some of the incidents through audio interviews with victims’ descendants, pictures of where the crimes happened, and written profiles.”
EJI’s founder and executive director Bryan Stevenson praised the tech company for its involvement in the project, saying:
“Google has been able to take what we know about lynching, and what we have heard from the families, and what we have seen in the spaces and the communities where these acts of terror took place, and make that knowledge accessible to a lot more people.”
In addition to the interactive map, EJI worked with Google.org to produce a short documentary about the descendants of one of those thousands of lynching victims.
“Uprooted” is a nearly seven-minute video that tells the story of Oakland, California filmmaker and lawyer Shirah Dedman, an African American woman whose great-grandfather Thomas William Miles, Sr. was lynched in Shreveport, Louisiana in 1912.
His crime? Allegedly passing a note to a white woman. The court absolved him of the charges, but a mob waiting outside the jail imposed its own sentence, shooting Thomas and stringing him up from a nearby tree.
After his death, Thomas’s widow and six-year-old son fled to California, and the family hasn’t returned to the South in more than 100 years.
Now Shirah, her mother Phoebe Dedman, and her aunt Luz Myles are returning to Shreveport because, she says, they “need to go see where we came from.”
Standing on the site of her great-grandfather’s death, which Shirah calls an act of “terrorism,” she and her family are brought to tears by the “loss of land, loss of businesses, loss of history.”
The powerful video ends with Shirah explaining that she doesn’t want to erase the past but to bring the past into the present in order to be able to move forward.
EJI’s executive director Stevenson echoed Shirah’s sentiment on EJI’s website, saying “We cannot heal the deep wounds inflicted during the era of racial terrorism until we tell the truth about it.”
Likewise, there is an important message here for the descendants of those who perpetrated, attended, or otherwise did nothing to stop this racial terrorism, as described in a recent op-ed in The New York Times:
“The perpetrators did not call themselves racist. Most did not bother to don white hoods. Ninety-nine percent were never convicted of a crime and Congress never passed a law making lynching illegal. In fact, lynchings were frequently photographed and published as postcards, which served as popular souvenirs in the South. A lynching could be attended by thousands and take place on the courthouse square.
“Rarely, if ever, did the leading white citizens of the community – or anyone, for that matter – raise a public objection to this or other forms of terrorism against African Americans. Few memorials of lynching and its victims exist today.”
Although Kaepernick’s kneel was a laudable demonstration against racial injustice, ultimately what matters is not so much whether we take a knee, sit down, or stand with locked arms on the field.
Instead, what matters is whether we are willing to face the dark truth of our nation’s history of racial violence and enter into a sincere dialogue about injustices faced by African Americans and other people of color – whether Louisiana in 1912, or Baltimore in 2015.
Our best chance to prevent history from continuing to repeat itself is not to turn a protest against injustice into a competition over who is more patriotic, but to let that protest start an honest conversation about where we’ve been – and ultimately, where we’re going.