Featured Photo Credit: Jonathan Ferrey/Getty
On August 26, 2016, before a preseason game, Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback with the San Francisco 49ers chose to sit instead of stand during the playing of the United States National Anthem. During a post-game interview, Kaepernick stated, “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 told 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.”
Although both the 49ers and the National Football League have declined to take disciplinary action, public reaction has been mixed. Some are calling him unpatriotic while others are calling his civil act of disobedience heroic. Given the level of media coverage of his actions, you would think Kaepernick was the first person to challenge blind patriotism. However, here are six other public figures that refused to honor their countries because of moral/political reasons:
1. Frederick Douglass
On July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass was invited to give a speech at an event commemorating the signing of the Declaration of Independence, held at Corinthian Hall in Rochester, NY. The audience got more than they bargained for when instead he told them,”This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.” He went on to ask, “Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak today?”
In his speech, which became one of his most famous, he said:
“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim… There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.”
Frederick Douglass was arguably the most famous orator of the 19th century and was the most photographed person of the 19th century. He sat for several pictures because he wanted to show the dignity of Black people during a time when minstrel shows were prominent.
2. Muhammad Ali
On April 28, 1967, boxing champion Muhammad Ali refused to be inducted into the United States Army and his heavyweight boxing title was subsequently taken away. Ali, who converted to Islam and changed his name in 1964, cited religious reasons for his decision to forgo military service. However, in March 1967, Ali explained:
“I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality… If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. But I either have to obey the laws of the land or the laws of Allah. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail. We’ve been in jail for four hundred years.”
3. Tommie Smith and John Carlos
On October 16, 1968, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, winners of the gold and bronze medals in the 200 meter sprint, bowed their heads and each raised one fist in protest during the playing of the national anthem. The men wore black socks with no shoes to symbolize poverty in many African American communities, and black gloves to represent our strength. Smith also wore a scarf and Carlos wore beads in memory of lynching victims. Both men were banished by the International Olympic Committee and suspended from the United States team. They both suffered ostracism from the track and field community and Olympic community for years afterward. Tommie Smith is quoted as saying:
“It was only done to bring attention to the atrocities of which we were experiencing in a country that was supposed to represent us.”
Prior to the Olympics, both men were involved with the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) where they had originally called for a boycott of the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games unless four conditions were met: 1) South Africa and Rhodesia were uninvited from the Olympics because they were nations that practiced apartheid, 2) the restoration of Muhammad Ali’s world heavyweight boxing title, 3) Avery Brundage to step down as president of the IOC, who they believe supported racist regimes, and 4) the hiring of more African American assistant coaches. Although the boycott failed to materialize, the men still made history.
4. Jackie Robinson
In his 1972 autobiography, I Never Had It Made, American Baseball League Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson, described the moment when he confronted his own hesitation to stand during the National Anthem at a major league baseball game.
“There I was,” he wrote. “The black grandson of a slave, the son of a black sharecropper, part of a historic occasion, a symbolic hero to my people. The air was sparkling. The sunlight was warm. The band struck up the national anthem. The flag billowed in the wind. It should have been a glorious moment for me as the stirring words of the national anthem poured from the stands. Perhaps, it was, but then again, perhaps, the anthem could be called the theme song for a drama called The Noble Experiment. Today, as I look back on that opening game of my first world series, I must tell you that it was Mr. Rickey’s drama and that I was only a principal actor.” He continued:
“As I write this twenty years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made.”
Throughout his historic career, Robinson was the target of racial epithets, baseball field violence, hate letters, and death threats.
4. Charles Roach
Born in Trinidad and Tobago, Charles Roach immigrated to Canada in 1955. He attended the University of Toronto Law School and became an important civil rights attorney and activist in Toronto.
Roach sought Canadian citizenship; however, it never materialized because he refused to swear loyalty to a colonialist sovereign. To become a Canadian citizen, one must pledge the following: “I… do swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Queen of Canada, Her Heirs and Successors. So help me God.” As a result of refusing to pledge, Roach gave up the right to vote, run for public office, and attain a Canadian passport. However, non-citizens bear the burden of still paying the same taxes as regular citizens and the risk of deportation for committing certain crimes. Roach also reportedly declined an opportunity to become a judge over his principled stance against taking the oath.
Throughout his career, he fought to change Canada’s citizenship requirements to allow people to swear an oath to Canada instead of the throne, which he said represented a legacy of oppression, imperialism and racism. For the majority of his adult life, he fought several court cases where he argued that an oath of allegiance to a sovereign is unconstitutional. The cases proved unsuccessful, but his fight gained much attention and support. As he stated in 2011:
“I don’t believe that anyone should have a political status just because of your birth and I feel strongly about that. For that reason, I wouldn’t take an oath to any such institution, which is based on race and religion.”
Roach had several high profile cases where he aided members of the Black Panthers from the United States who were seeking political asylum in Canada. He also helped form the Black Action Defence Committee, which pushed for the creation of Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit, a civilian-led unit, which investigates cases where officers seriously injure or kill people.
Despite efforts of long time colleagues, when Roach passed away in 2012, Canada refused to grant Roach citizenship posthumously.
5. Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf
In 1996, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf was a starting point guard for the Denver Nugggets. During the national anthem, he would stretch or stay inside the locker room instead of taking the floor. When a reporter finally asked about it, Abdul-Rauf said he viewed the American flag as a symbol of oppression and racism. Abdul-Rauf also said standing for the anthem would conflict with his Muslim faith.
“You can’t be for God and for oppression…” he said at the time. “I don’t criticize those who stand, so don’t criticize me for sitting.”
Abdul-Rauf was suspended for one game on March 12, 1996. The NBA cited a rule that players must line up in a “dignified posture” for the anthem. Although the player’s union supported him, he lost $32,000 in salary. For the remainder of the season, Abdul-Rauf agreed to stand but to pray for the oppressed with his head down during the national anthem. At the end of the season, the Nuggets traded Abdul-Rauf to the Sacramento Kings. At the time, he was leading the team in points (19.2) and averaged 6.2 assists. After his contract expired in 1998, he played overseas and had a brief stint back in the league with the Vancouver Grizzlies in the 2000-2001 season.
Information attained from:
- “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro” http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part4/4h2927.html
- Muhammad Ali refuses Army induction, http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/muhammad-ali-refuses-army-induction
- “Muhammad Ali Refuses to Fight in Vietnam (1967) http://alphahistory.com/vietnamwar/muhammad-ali-refuses-to-fight-1967/
- David Davis, Olympic Athletes Who Took a Stand, SMITHSONIAN MAGAZINE, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/people-places/olympic-athletes-who-took-a-stand-593920/?no-ist
- Andy Blatchford, After decades fighting monarchy oath in citizenship requirements, Toronto activist dies without becoming Canadian, The Canadian Press http://news.nationalpost.com/news/canada/charles-roach-dies-before-court-rules-on-oath-to-queen-for-citizenship
- Jesse Washington, Still no anthem, still no regrets for Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, http://theundefeated.com/features/abdul-rauf-doesnt-regret-sitting-out-national-anthem/
- Kirsten West Savali, Jackie Robinson in 1972: ‘I Cannot Stand and Sing the Anthem; I Cannot Salute the Flag’ http://www.theroot.com/articles/culture/2016/08/jackie-robinson-colin-kaepernick-star-bangled-banner/
About The Author
Rick McCray is a married father of three amazing sons. He is also a proud graduate of Duke University where he holds a BA in History and African/African American History, and Howard University School of Law. He is also a regular commentator on the In The Black podcast. Rick is passionate about our history and helping to educate our community concerning the great contributions of people of color to the world. You can find Rick on Twitter @RealRickMcCray.