By Bill Mefford
In 2000, when I worked with an urban mission in Waco, Texas I took a group of Baylor students on a mission trip to Philadelphia. We drove straight from Waco to Philly - and that is one long drive. We got to Washington DC at 3 am, which is actually an incredible time to visit the monuments; there is no trouble getting parking and hardly anyone is around!
Though I had visited DC as a kid, this was the first time for me to visit in over 20 years. As we walked around the Lincoln Memorial, remembering the numerous historic marches and rallies that occurred there there was something almost holy about being in that space. We also walked around the Capitol and the White House and Washington Monument - soaking it all in. I felt a strong sense of pride. I am not normally what others would call a patriot person, but recalling the historic periods when this country has done the right thing - the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, the creation of an open immigration system in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, and so many other pieces of legislation or amendments to the Constitution, large and small - all of these bring tremendous pride and thankfulness for me for the numerous people who worked so hard and sacrificed so much for even a glimmer of justice to be experienced for people who are so often forgotten in the halls of power.
It has been the memories of the times when glimpses of justice have shone through the usual darkness of oppression and systematic marginalization that I resonate with and that gives me encouragement and strength. This is where I draw hope. When I have stood for the National Anthem in the past I have found myself standing because of these events and the people who made them happen. The fact that because these past events have happened is the reason I have faith at all in the possibility for justice to perhaps happen again. I stand and honor the sacrifice and tremendously hard work done by people who do not get accolades or public honors; the people who struggle and live among the poor and disenfranchised so that hopefully, one day justice might shine for them.
They are a part of America. Unlike the leaders of the military who pay sports leagues millions of dollars to disingenuously gin up emotional ties to the military, who pay millions of dollars so that patriotism for the country is conflated with unblemished support for military, who pay millions of dollars to create a false narrative that the only heroes in this country are those who carry weapons and commit violence upon the orders of political leaders who have done all they can to avoid military service, leaving that service typically for those at the bottom rungs of the economic ladder; unlike those who run the military, the heroes and sheroes who live among and struggle alongside undocumented immigrants and refugees, who live in the midst of poverty and do not have millions of dollars to pay the NFL to put on pregame and halftime shows thanking them for their sacrifice for this country.
So, when I stand for the National Anthem, I stand for these people.
Thus, in 2003, when I could not bring myself to stand for the National Anthem at athletic events because the United States was entering into an illegal invasion into Iraq that I was a little shocked as I heard from people who believed I was essentially committing treason by refusing to rise. I simply could not reconcile the pride I felt reflecting on the possibility of a glimpse of justice for the oppressed when I saw this country, misled by a president and vice-president who lied to the country and goaded this country into a war that killed tens of thousands (possibly hundreds of thousands) of lives who deserved not to die, but to live. I sat during the anthem for several years because the promise and the reality were irreconcilable.
And now we are once again back this same situation. We have a white supremacist in the White House whose rhetoric and actions and policies are geared to generate white anger towards people of color. His vitriol against African American NFL players is just one in a line of of events just in this week alone:
- donald trump has lowered the number of refugees allowed into this country to a record low.
- He has virtually ignored the devastation of Puerto Rico where people are literally starting to die because of national neglect.
- And he has come out with a new Muslim Ban, 3.0, determined to unfairly demonize anti-Muslim sentiment.
- Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions railed against prohibiting free speech this week at a DC-based university while denying access to his speech for those who disagree with him.
donald trump has cloaked his hateful attacks on African American NFL players with a superficial understanding of patriotism, claiming it has nothing to do with race. But, as usual, the man has not listened. His racism is clearly evident when all of those who have knelt, starting with Colin Kaepernick, have stated that they are kneeling because of racial inequalities and police brutality against people of color. Rather than address racial inequality or police brutality he and his racist Attorney General have blamed people of color and maintained a racist status quo.
When even the glimpse of the possibility of justice is denied, as it continually is by this menace in the Oval Office as he focuses on stoking white anger, then I cannot resonate with the celebration or honor of this country. As Bob Costas eloquently stated on CNN, patriotism cannot be conflated into support for the military. Standing for the flag was never about the military for me and remaining seated is not about the military either.
Though I still feel that strong sense of pride when I walk around the Lincoln Memorial and remember the tremendous marches that have taken place, or when I see the Capitol dome and recall the great and small advances for human rights that have, on occasion, taken place there, I will not stand for National Anthem until this man and his administration no longer are able to use their considerable power to harm people.
I believe the United States has tremendous potential for good and justice and I have seen it in small ways from time to time. But I refuse to pretend that we are living into that potential with our current leadership. The potential and the reality are, once again, irreconcilable for me. And so I will not stand for it literally or figuratively.