Colin Kaepernick and the history of black patriotism

Colin Kaepernick's refusal to stand for the national anthem is a call to reflect on the long history of patriotism on the part of black Americans, a history that few Americans even know.

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WASHINGTON, August 31, 2016 — Few groups have stood as strong and proud for America as have black men and women, even though fewer groups have been as badly treated by her. Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the national anthem is a call to reflect on the long history of patriotism on the part of black Americans, a history that few Americans even know.

The first blood shed in the struggle for American independence belonged to a member of the group fired upon by British soldiers in the “Boston Massacre,” a black man named Crispus Attucks.

The first electric streetlights in a metropolitan area, New York City, were installed under the supervision of a black man, Lewis H. Latimer, assistant and associate of Thomas A. Edison. The U.S. Flag was first placed at the North Pole by a black explorer, Mathew A. Henson.

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Black Americans, although they suffered the indignity of slavery and the legal barriers of segregation, have been committed patriots. In his 1964 book, “The Negro in the Making of America,” Professor Benjamin Quarles, a black historian, points out that, from the beginning, black Americans made one important decision: They would remain in America.

From the time of the Revolution, blacks were advised by blacks as well as whites to return to Africa. Given the choice, they chose almost all to remain in America.

At a meeting in a black church in Rochester, New York in 1853, delegates led by noted orator Frederick Douglass, adopted a statement which declared, “We ask that in our native land we shall not be treated as strangers, and worse than strangers.

The delegates rejected the suggestion to abandon the United States, supporting instead a proposal to establish a school that would teach their children skilled trades.

Many efforts have been made by America’s enemies to enlist the support of black Americans, a group they thought likely to endorse calls for revolution because of their legitimate grievances.

To the Communist Party in the 1920s and 1930s, the black American was viewed as the prototype of the oppressed, exploited worker. During a 1925 meeting in Moscow, Joseph Stalin asked why blacks were not better represented in the U.S. Communist Party.

To improve their standing with blacks, the Communists adopted a policy calling for self-determination for those areas of the American South where blacks lived in large numbers. Blacks were called an “oppressed nation” who had the right to separation from the United States.

These overtures were a dismal failure. Blacks wanted to be free and equal within America, not separate from it. Dr. Quarles writes:

Negroes simply did not seem to be attuned to the Communist message, for reasons that are not hard to fathom. Typically American, the Negro was individualistic , not likely to submerge his personality in conformity to a party line from which there could be no deviation … The Negro, again like other Americans of his day, was not class-conscious—the vocabulary of the Communists struck him as foreign. Basically, too, the Negro was a man of conservative mold.

Because they protested against segregation, some thought blacks were radicalized. Instead, they sought only the opportunity to enter the American society as equal citizens, free to go as far as their individual abilities would take them.

Some blacks who briefly entered the Communist Party were repelled by it, discovering that the very freedom they sought was rejected by the party. Respected author Richard Wright recalled his experience as a young party member in Chicago in the 1930s:

I found myself arguing alone against the majority opinion, and then I made still another amazing  discovery, I saw that even those who agreed with me would not support me. At that meeting I learned that when a man was informed of the wish of the party he submitted, even though he knew with all the strength of his brain  that the wish was not a wise one, was one that would ultimately hurt the party interests … It was not courage that made me oppose the party.  I simply did not know any better. It was inconceivable to me, tough-bred in the lap of Southern hate, that a man could not have his say. I had spent a third of my life traveling from the place of my birth to the North just to talk freely, to escape the pressure of fear. And now I was facing fear again.

J.A. Parker, one of the early black conservatives and president of the Lincoln Institute, noted:

In reviewing the history of black Americans, we should focus upon those who vigorously opposed the efforts of extremists to turn them against America, to isolate them from others in society and to cause them to abandon their goal of a free society in which men and women were to be judged as individuals, not as members of one racial or ethnic or religious group or another. We should focus upon individuals such as Gen. Chappie James, authors Max Yergan and George Schuyler, and composer William Grant Still, to name only several whose proper place in black history often seems to be overlooked. These men were outstanding in their individual careers and never ceased to fight for the day when race would be incidental in determining the place of any man or woman in the American society. They understood that America was the last, best hope of the world to achieve a truly free and just society.

Benjamin Quarles was correct when he wrote that,

To most Negroes … the vision of the founders of this republic was still a vital force. Americans to the core, they believe that freedom and equality for all could be achieved in their native land … The belief has been one of their significant contributions in the making of America. In enlarging the meaning of freedom and in giving it new expressions, the Negro has played a major role. he has been watchman on the wall. More fully than other Americans, he knew that freedom was hard-won and could be preserved only by continuous effort. The faith and works of the Negro over the years has made it possible for the American creed to retain so much of its appeal, so much of its moving power.

America has been a unique and ethnically diverse society from the beginning. By the time of the first census in 1790, people of English origin were actually already a slight minority. Enslaved Africans and their American-born descendants made up 20 per cent of the population, and there were large clusters of Scotch-Irish, German. Scottish and Dutch settlers, and smaller numbers of Swedes, Finns, Huguenots and Sephardic Jews. America has always been something unique, not simply another country.

In the 1840s, Herman Melville wrote, “We are the heirs of all time and with all the nations we divide our inheritance. If you kill an American, you shed the blood of the whole world.”

Visiting New Amsterdam in 1643, French Jesuit missionary Isaac Jogues was surprised to discover that 18 languages were spoken in this town of 8,000 people. In his “Letters From An American Farmer,” J. Hector St. John Crevecoeur wrote in 1782, “Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labor and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world.”

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Mario Puzo, author of “The Godfather,” wrote:

What has happened here has never happened in any other country in any other time. The poor who had been poor for centuries, whose children had inherited their poverty, their illiteracy, their hopelessness, achieved some economic dignity and freedom. You didn’t get it for nothing, you had to pay a price in tears, in suffering, why not? And some even became artists.

As a young man, growing up in Manhattan’s lower East Side, Puzo was asked by his mother, an Italian immigrant, what he wanted to be when he grew up. When he said he wanted to be a writer, she responded that, “For a thousand years in Italy, no one in our family was even able to read.”

But in America everything was possible, in a single generation. Ours is a complex society of more than 330 million people of every race, religion and ethnic background. Inevitably, such a society will have problems and difficulties. These we must confront and resolve. To see only the problems and overlook the larger American story is to misunderstand reality.

Colin Kaepernick should review this history. In our free society, he has a right not to stand for the national anthem. But upon further consideration and a review of the dramatic progress our society has made and continues to make, he might make a different decision in the future.
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Allan C. Brownfeld
Received B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary, and M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen's Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonweal and The Christian Century. His essays have been reprinted in a number of text books for university courses in Government and Politics. For many years, his column appeared several times a week in papers such as The Washington Times, The Phoenix Gazette and the Orange County Register. He served as a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, as Assistant to the research director of the House Republican Conference and as a consultant to members of the U.S. Congress and to the Vice President. He is the author of five books and currently serves as Contributing Editor of The St. Croix Review, Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and editor of Issues.