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.
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:
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:
J.A. Parker, one of the early black conservatives and president of the Lincoln Institute, noted:
Benjamin Quarles was correct when he wrote that,
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.”
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.