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Over the last couple of weeks, we have seen various commentators (and commentaries) about how wrong NFL players are to “disrespect the flag.” As a part of a campaign rally in Alabama, the President claimed that they were ungrateful SOBs who should be fired for not standing during the singing or playing of the National Anthem. Lost in all of the kneeling, sitting, and locking of arms during the anthem is the man who started it all … Colin Kaepernick AND the cause for which he took a knee.

Last year, Colin Kaepernick was a quarterback on the San Francisco 49ers. He began taking a knee during the singing/playing of the national anthem to call attention to the rampant injustice in the United States that repeatedly allows unarmed African Americans to be shot by police officers and most of those officers never being convicted of murder, manslaughter or even wrongful death. By the end of the season, Kaepernick was let go and NO other team picked him up.

Some argued that Kaepernick was not “good enough” to be on a team. Kaepernick who recently took his team to the Super Bowl was “not good enough.” And, while experts can disagree I think Kaepernick is better than a number of current quarterbacks. Indeed, even if no team thought he was good enough to start, he is at least good enough to be a backup on some team. I can only surmise that Kaepernick is not on a team because the NFL owners have decided he is too publicly toxic to sign. And, I assume that they have colluded to ensure that no one broke the code that said, “Do not sign Kaepernick!”

One of the things we hear over and over about Kaepernick – and now the players who are protesting – is what they are doing is “not the right way to protest.” So now I ask, “What is the RIGHT way to protest?” The players taking a knee are not disrupting the anthem. They are not causing a scene. They are expressing their Constitutional right not to stand during the anthem. At my university last year, two of our basketball players decided to step off of the line away from the rest of their teammates during the singing/playing of the national anthem. Again, it was not disruptive. It was a silent protest and yet at one game I heard a fan yell, “[Player’s name] step up to the line!” The fan disrupted the anthem, not the player!

If kneeling quietly before the anthem is not the right way to protest, what is the right way? There has never been a protest movement led by black people that was considered “right.” Nineteenth-century abolitionists were not protesting “the right way.” The protests of black people throughout the South was not considered “the right way.” When Martin Luther King, Jr. led protests in Montgomery, Selma, Chicago, and cities across the nation it was not considered “the right way.” When John Carlos and Tommie Smith protested at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico, it was not considered “the right way.” When Muhammad Ali protested the Vietnam War, it was not considered “the right way.” When black people in the United States staged protests on behalf of Apartheid in South Africa and were being hauled off to jail, it was not considered “the right way.” None of these protests were considered “the right way,” but it turns out every last one of these protestors was on the right side of history. Protests against big, powerful systems are almost always seen as “wrong.” But history almost always proves them right.

Colin Kaepernick is right! He was being respectful in his protest and he is paying the price for it. Indeed, a recent post on my social media wall says, “Racism is so American that when we protest racism the average American assumes we’re protesting America!” Thus, if the folks who claim that black folks are not protesting “the right way” were honest with themselves they would admit that they think the only right way to protest is to be white!

Written by Gloria Ladson-Billings

Gloria Ladson-Billings

Gloria Ladson-Billings is the Kellner Family Chair in Urban Education in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction and Faculty Affiliate in the Department of Educational Policy Studies for the University of Wisconsin.

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