Dissent is the highest form of patriotism – Benjamin Franklin
You’ve heard from George Payne on numerous occasions, recently in The Spirit of Corn Hill Lives: Photographing Rochester’s Most Historically Diverse Neighborhood
George teaches philosophy at Finger Lakes Community College and is the founder of Gandhi Earth Keepers International.
Today — as did President Obama yesterday — George weighs in on Colin Kapernick’s decision not to stand for the national anthem.
Reflecting upon Kapernick’s stance, George looks at the legacy of Susan B. Anthony and George Francis Bellamy (University of Rochester, 1876), author of the Pledge of Allegiance.
Sitting Tall: Colin Kaepernick and the Real Meaning of Patriotism
I may not agree with everything that San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick has done in his NFL career. I did not like the time he wore socks with pigs dressed as police officers. If that was not an outright act of hate speech, it was an act of dehumanization which is beneath him as a citizen. I’m sure he later regretted doing that. San Jose Mercury Story
But the point is, I do not need to agree with Colin Kaepernick in order to appreciate his right to express himself as an American. It was the social philosopher Voltaire who said, “I may not agree with what you say, but I will fight to the death for your right to say it.”
Freedom of speech is the cornerstone of any vibrant democracy. Without the right to express grievances against one’s government, especially in a nonviolent and civil manner, political control moves dramatically to the right in the form of oligarchy, autocracy, and even dictatorship.
Recently I was listening to a sports radio show out of Buffalo. The host was talking about how Buffalo is considered to be one of the most racist cities in America. Disagreeing with this assessment,he referenced the many African American quarterbacks that the Buffalo Bills have drafted or acquired over the years. To make matters worse, a caller then chimed in about an incident at a Bills game which he will never forget. To summarize the call, this man and his friend were in the bleachers during the playing of the national anthem. He went on to say, “a 250 lbs African American male was sitting down in the row below us. My friend, who was a Vietnam veteran, leaned over and said:”hey buddy, get up. Do you think you are in Russia or something?”
Although I get the sentiment, I wonder if this man could possibly know how absurd he sounds. First and foremost, if the man sitting down in front of him lived in an autocratic society like the Russia of that era, he would not even have the choice to sit down. Conformity was obligatory. To resist the State protocol was to risk your life. The fact that he has the right to sit down is what supposedly distinguishes an open and free society from an autocracy. Why take that right away by accusing him of being a conformist?
Like the friend of the caller in Buffalo, my father also fought in Viet Nam; but he sees this matter a bit differently. My dad told me that he served for Kaepernick’s right to protest. He did not fight to make protesting an un-American activity. In other words, my dad did not fight so that his sacrifice could be viewed as more sacred than the rights of citizens to be free. What makes soldiering a sacrifice- besides the toll it takes on one’s body, mind, soul and nuclear family- is the willingness to let go of egotistical desires. Citizens do not sing the national anthem to celebrate soldiers. Soldiers enlist and serve so that national anthems can be sung. There are many different ways to sing our anthem. Some of them are with words and instruments, while some happen by just sitting down.
This event has caused me to recollect those days in high school when I felt forced to say the “Pledge of Allegiance” before classes. It became a daily drag to recite the pledge, but to refuse to do so was too much work. There were days when I would mumble through it, and other days when I would quit before it ended. To be honest, I probably even got away with not saying it every once in a while. But most of the time I just went along with the crowd. The social pressure to conform was immense.
What the plaque at the University of Rochester will not tell you about Francis Bellamy, is that he was a Baptist minister’s son from upstate New York. Educated in public schools, he distinguished himself in oratory at the University of Rochester before following his father to the pulpit, preaching at churches in New York and Boston. He was restive in the ministry and, in 1891, accepted a job from one of his Boston congregants, Daniel S. Ford, principal owner and editor of the Youth’s Companion, a family magazine with half a million subscribers.
According to a substantive article in the illustrious Smithsonian:
Assigned to the magazine’s promotions department, the 37-year-old Bellamy set to work arranging a patriotic program for schools around the country to coincide with opening ceremonies for the Columbian Exposition in October 1892, the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the New World. Bellamy successfully lobbied Congress for a resolution endorsing the school ceremony, and he helped convince President Benjamin Harrison to issue a proclamation declaring a Columbus Day holiday.
A key element of the commemorative program was to be a new salute to the flag for schoolchildren to recite in unison. But as the deadline for writing the salute approached, it remained undone. “You write it,” Bellamy recalled his boss saying. “You have a knack at words.” In Bellamy’s later accounts of the sultry August evening he composed the pledge, he said that he believed all along it should invoke allegiance. The idea was in part a response to the Civil War, a crisis of loyalty still fresh in the national memory. As Bellamy sat down at his desk, the opening words—”I pledge allegiance to my flag”—tumbled onto paper. Then, after two hours of “arduous mental labor,” as he described it, he produced a succinct and rhythmic tribute very close to the one we know today: I pledge allegiance to my flag and the Republic for which it stands—one Nation indivisible—with liberty and justice for all. (Bellamy later added the “to” before “the Republic” for better cadence.)
Millions of schoolchildren nationwide took part in the 1892 Columbus Day ceremony, according to the Youth’s Companion. Bellamy said he heard the pledge for the first time that day, October 21, when “4,000 high school boys in Boston roared it out together.”
But no sooner had the pledge taken root in schools than the fiddling with it began. In 1923, a National Flag Conference, presided over by the American Legion and the Daughters of the American Revolution, ordained that “my flag” should be changed to “the flag of the United States,” lest immigrant children be unclear just which flag they were saluting. The following year, the Flag Conference refined the phrase further, adding “of America.”
In 1942, the pledge’s 50th anniversary, Congress adopted it as part of a national flag code. By then, the salute had already acquired a powerful institutional role, with some state legislatures obligating public school students to recite it each school day. But individuals and groups challenged the laws. Notably, Jehovah’s Witnesses maintained that reciting the pledge violated their prohibition against venerating a graven image. In 1943, the Supreme Court ruled in the Witnesses’ favor, undergirding the free-speech principle that no schoolchild should be compelled to recite the pledge.
As an adopted Rochesterian, I have also become familiar with the amazing legacy of Susan B. Anthony. As Kaepernick’s sit down strike continues to garner national publicity, I am reminded of another act of civil disobedience which took place in Rochester in 1872. One of the most informative websites about the famous Susan B. Anthony “crime” and subsequent federal trial is the Federal Judicial Center. As the story goes,
On November 5, 1872, in the first district of the Eighth Ward of Rochester, New York, Susan B. Anthony and fourteen other women voted in the United States election, which included the election for members of Congress. The women had successfully registered to vote several days earlier. A poll watcher challenged Anthony’s qualification as a voter. The inspectors of election took the steps required by state law when a challenge occurred: they asked Anthony under oath if she was a citizen, if she lived in the district, and if she had accepted bribes for her vote. Following her satisfactory answers to these questions, the inspectors placed her ballots in the boxes.
The individuals at the polling place revealed the state and federal aspects of Anthony’s crime. Three inspectors of election, local men who also served as a board of registration for voters, enforced the election laws of New York, which allowed all white males and some black males to vote. Since ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870, Congress had provided for new federal oversight of elections through several Enforcement Acts, primarily to ensure that all black men be allowed to vote despite state laws, but also to stop fraud and corruption in federal elections. Two federal supervisors of election oversaw the inspectors.Susan B. Anthony did not expect to vote. Pursuing a strategy adopted by the National Woman Suffrage Association in 1871, she expected to be denied registration as a voter and subsequently to sue for her right to vote in federal court. Women elsewhere in the country were stopped in their attempts to vote at the point of registration. Anthony’s success at registering as a voter raised the possibility of voting, and again, when she returned on election day, the officials at the polls decided that she was an eligible voter. Anthony and members of the Association believed that the Fourteenth Amendment, which defined U.S. citizenship, protected a woman’s right to vote. The women reasoned that the rights of U.S. citizenship, or, in constitutional language, “the privileges and immunities of citizens of the United States,” included the right to vote. If the Fourteenth Amendment’s definition of U.S. citizenship included women, and the states were barred from depriving U.S. citizens of the privileges and immunities of citizenship, it followed that states could not exclude women from the electorate. The Fifteenth Amendment’s reference to the “right of citizens of the United States to vote” implicitly acknowledged women’s right as citizens to vote. Woman suffragists sought to validate their interpretation either through a declaratory act of Congress that would enforce their interpretation of the Reconstruction Amendments or through a favorable decision in federal courts.
Nine days after the election, U.S. Commissioner William Storrs, an officer of the federal courts, issued warrants for the arrest of Anthony and the fourteen other women who voted in Rochester. Based on the complaint of Sylvester Lewis, a poll watcher who challenged Anthony’s vote, the women were charged with voting for members of the U.S. House of Representatives “without having a lawful right to vote,” in violation of section 19 of the Enforcement Act of 1870
United States v. Susan B. Anthony was a criminal trial in the federal courts. The government charged her with the crime of voting without “the legal right to vote in said election district”—she, in the words of the indictment, “being then and there a person of the female sex.” Her trial revealed the complexity of federalism in the post-Civil War years. She was convicted in federal court under federal law for violating state law about who was eligible to vote. New York state law prohibited women from voting, and a recent federal law provided for the criminal prosecution of anyone who voted in congressional elections “without having a lawful right to vote.”
What Kaepernick and Anthony both have in common is a love for country that goes beyond blind obedience to national rites andtype of patriotism which these individuals expressed is the type which makes more enemies than friends. It is not for cowards.
To break an unjust law using the tactic of civil nonviolent resistance is an American virtue. Likewise, to sit down during an anthem which does not represent your core values is courageous. The latter act may not be against the law, but it is against the grain, which can be equally dangerous. Both acts would have made Francis Scot Key proud. When Key wrote the words,” O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave, ” he was glorifying the reality of freedom in the lives of people who are willing and brave enough to be free. The symbol of the flag is not what Key was glorifying. That would be an act of fetishism which makes an inanimate object more important than the intrinsic rights of human beings flying it. Moreover, an anthem can also become a symbol of sheepish allegiance to a false idol. If it is not performed by free citizens who have the right to remain silent, it is just a song.
National Anthem Lyrics
O! say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O! say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
On the shore dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream:
‘Tis the star-spangled banner, O! long may it wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion,
A home and a country, should leave us no more?
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave,
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
O! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved homes and the war’s desolation.
Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the Heav’n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: ‘In God is our trust.’
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!