Ever since former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick first “took a knee” in 2016 during the playing of the National Anthem to protest racial inequality and police brutality, there has been a group of people, led by and including the President of the United States, to denigrate the act and to complain that “taking a knee” is a sign of disrespect of the American flag and the military.
The president has been bold in his criticism of players acting on their First Amendment right to protest, saying at one of his rallies that he wished NFL owners would take a stand against anyone “disrespecting our flag,” saying, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when someone disrespects our flag, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field now.’” ( https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2017/sep/22/donald-trump-nfl-national-anthem-protests)
The narrative supporting the belief that the protest is somehow unpatriotic has only grown among those who support the president’s views, but the fact of the matter is that this country has a history of disrespecting black men (and women) who have fought in America’s wars. The history is not pretty.
The story of Isaac Woodard, who in February 1946 was attacked by white people while still in uniform, is just one of the many cases of black military veterans being beaten by whites. In Woodard’s case, he had just been honorably discharged and was on a bus headed to South Carolina from Georgia. When he asked if the bus driver would allow him time to use the bathroom during a stop, the bus driver got angry and cussed at the still-in-uniform Woodard – and Woodard said later that he cussed back. The bus driver called someone while the bus was stopped, and further along in the trip, the bus made another stop. It was met by police, to whom the bus driver told the story of Woodard wanting the bus to wait for him to go to the bathroom and about Woodard cussing back at the bus driver. Police began beating Woodard right there. They arrested him and took him to jail, where they continued to beat him until he was unconscious. When he awakened, his uniform now bloody from the beating he had endured, he could not see. The police chief reportedly had used his nightstick to pound Woodard in his eyes. He was charged with disorderly conduct and was made to pay a fine. Someone drove him to a hospital where doctors told him he would be permanently blind.
The truth is, in spite of African Americans being willing to fight for this country, this country has not been willing to treat them with dignity and afford them the full rights of American citizenship. According to a report prepared by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), “Lynching in America: Targeting Black Veterans, between 1877 and 1950, “no one was more at risk of experiencing violence and targeted racial terror than black veterans. White America, notably in the South but elsewhere as well, had no respect for the men and women who had joined the military but were instead afraid of them, and they were unwilling to abandon their belief in white superiority over black people. The report quotes Mississippi Senator James K. Vardaman said that black veterans returning to the Shout would “inevitably lead to disaster.” Whites in America, who wanted to preserve the white supremacy way of life and of thinking, were worried that while in Europe, the soldiers might have gotten confused, thinking they were due human and civil rights. Whites were determined that no such new thinking on the part of blacks would be legitimized. (https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/the-tragic-forgotten-history-of-black-military-veterans)
The EJI report said that often “the only provocation” for a black in uniform to be attacked was just that – the wearing of the uniform, but the violence meted out against them did not stop blacks from enlisting in the American military. The report says that 1.2 million black men enlisted during World War II. When they returned home, they were subjected not only to violence but were denied benefits offered to white veterans. The GI bill was written in such a way that most of its benefits, including money to purchase homes and/or to get an education, were denied to black soldiers.
While all of the stories of black soldiers being abused, discriminated and ultimately lynched, some stories stand out more than others. Johnson C. Whittaker, the first black to receive an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point was found unconscious in his dorm in 1880. While he was sleep, he was attacked by three white cadets, who beat him in his head, choked him and cut his earlobes. West Point administrators blamed Whittaker, saying he had staged the attack, and they court-martialed him. He was convicted and expelled from West Point. (https://eji.org/reports/online/lynching-in-america-targeting-black-veterans)
The disrespect of blacks who served in the military has not stopped. On Veterans Day in 2016, Ernest Walker, wearing his Army uniform, went to a Chili’s restaurant in Texas where veterans were being offered free meals. Walker says t an elderly white man, wearing a “Make America Great Again” cap, approached him at his table and said that he had served in Germany and that “blacks were allowed to serve there.” The man told the manager that Walker was not a real soldier “because he was wearing his hat inside.” The manager approached Walker and in spite of Walker showing his military credentials, his leftover free food was taken away. (https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/chilis-apologizes-veterans-day_us_58297fe7e4b0c4b63b0d47d1)
The fact that in spite of being so badly treated in this country that African Americans have continued to enlist in the military to fight for this country says something about the perception of what “taking a knee” is about. Far from showing disrespect for the American flag and for America’s military, “taking a knee” is a protest against the system that allows, sanctions, ignores and perpetuates the discrimination against black people. If there is a “son of a bitch” in this scenario, it is not the players who kneel; it is the system which, because of its injustice, forces them to kneel. It is a legal way, an action in compliance with the tenets of the United States Constitution, to bring attention to the lack the rights of full American citizenship for people of color.
Now the president wants to have a huge, expensive military parade. Whatever his reasons are, I am sure he is ignorant of how the military has treated some in their ranks who have died or been permanently maimed while fighting for a country which does not fight for them. Wouldn’t it be nice if the president and his crew would read the history of what African Americans have contributed to America’s military efforts …and themselves, “take a knee” to show solidarity, support, and understanding – and a willingness to change what is wrong?
That would be just, I think.
A candid observation…
One thought on “Black Military Veterans, Racism, and Taking a Knee”
Thank you for this observation.