The Duty of a True Patriot

The Duty of a True Patriot

Today, Christopher Hayashida-Knight shares his first Field Dispatch on Muster. Chris completed a Ph.D. in History and Women’s Studies at Pennsylvania State University in 2017. He is currently teaching U.S. history at California State University, Chico, in addition to working at a nonprofit. His research centers on African American women in the post-Civil War period. He will be contributing pieces that reflect on gender and women’s history in the Civil War era.


Monday-morning quarterbacking used to have a far more literal meaning, but recently events occurring before kickoff have sparked far more heated debate than Tom Brady’s passing game. What began as Colin Kaepernick’s quiet, personal response to repeated and unpunished deaths of black citizens at the hands of police became a national protest phenomenon.

Drawing broad praise from racial justice activists and quick condemnation from those who like to keep their football and politics separate, President Trump lamented the NFL’s delayed decision to allow the act as “total disrespect for our great country!”[1] Though athletes’ free expression has been erroneously framed as an “anthem protest” by opponents, their kneeling during the Star-Spangled Banner is a powerful statement of alarm from one of the biggest soap boxes in the public sphere.[2]

Scholars have rightly pointed to the respectful custom of kneeling for the anthem in times of crisis, as well as the barely-concealed white supremacist undertones of the “shut up and play” crowd. Baseball’s Jackie Robinson, arguably the most famous black athlete of the twentieth century, wrote during the Vietnam era, “I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world.”[3]

Young African American woman, c. 1870 to 1900. African American women in the Civil War-era North worked for equitable educational opportunities for black children and the desegregation of public transportation. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Professional sports are only a more public setting for a theme that has animated African American history since the founding. In 1847, Frederick Douglass explained to a crowd in Syracuse that honoring the nation means holding it to its own highest standards: “He is a lover of his country,” Douglass argued, “who rebukes and does not excuse its sins.”[4]

This critical patriotism was not exclusive to men in public, either. Black women in the Civil War-era North also defended their love of country while decrying their countrywomen’s racism. When the upper class white women of Philadelphia were canvassing the city’s twenty-eight wards to raise funds in 1873 for the upcoming Centennial celebration of the Declaration of Independence, Women’s Committee member Mary Rose Smith took it upon herself to invite the city’s African American women to participate in the patriotic fundraising effort. Her plan was for black women to constitute a “colored” auxiliary to the Women’s Committee, which would not breach norms by approaching white homes, but only be allowed to solicit donations from other black Philadelphians.[5]

Whether the gesture was an earnest offer of patriotic racial unity, a cynical ploy for donations without having to comingle with black people, or something in between is not entirely clear. When Dr. Rebecca J. Cole, one of the nation’s first black female surgeons, informed Mrs. Smith that she and her three dozen colleagues would be happy to join the work, but on equal terms with the white women, Smith hit the roof. Cole and others told a reporter that Smith called the invitation “only a courtesy extended towards us, and that the celebration was not a matter that concerns our color, but only white people.” Smith “even went so far as to speak of ‘remanding’ us to Africa if we were not satisfied with the laws of the land,” a comment that turned a respectful negotiation of fundraising protocols into a debate over the right of black Americans to even exist within the boundaries of the nation. Eventually, Committee Chairwoman (and great-granddaughter of Benjamin Franklin) Elizabeth Duane Gillespie got involved and offered apologies to Cole and her fellow volunteers for Smith’s behavior. Gillespie and a deputy assured the women that they did not intend to offend them; indeed, the Committee “did not recognize the word ‘color’ in its customary application to the human races”— an early deployment of the “color blind” defense.[6]

Centennial Photographic Company, Colossal hand and torch “Liberty,”c. 1876. The Centennial World’s Fair was the first in U.S. history, and boosters hoped to demonstrate American ingenuity, industrial strength, and unity after the Civil War. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Cole and some of her volunteers decided to accept the apology, going on to raise funds with the Women’s Committee as equal members. Their protest resulted in changed behavior on a local scale and they embraced the chance to help celebrate their nation’s hundredth birthday. Others refused, preferring to publicize the offense to build awareness of persistent racism, and found their own ways to honor the anniversary of independence. When public school teacher Caroline LeCount, told a local reporter what her rejection of the apology meant to her, she described a sense of belonging to the American nation that overrode the racism of other Americans. LeCount pointed to “the sacrifices and sufferings of true Americans” in which black women “participated, not to the exclusion of Mrs. Smith and her ‘Women of America,’ but to the common inheritance of all.” Describing a nation that was broad enough to include people of different colors, and complex enough to hold ideals it could not yet measure up to, LeCount echoed the ideas of her contemporary, Frederick Douglass, who promised to “hold up America to the lightning scorn of moral indignation. In doing this, I shall feel myself discharging the duty of a true patriot.”[7]

Though Cole and LeCount chose different responses to white women’s racism, both expressed a patriotism that critiqued America’s faults while honoring its potential. These women had not only their own reputations in Black Philadelphia to consider, but the reputation of black people throughout the nation; they understood that their actions in Philadelphia were important on the national scale as white Americans adjusted to the legal reality of black citizenship under the recently passed Reconstruction amendments. Black Americans’ displays of patriotism had to represent to the country—and the world—not only the present dignity of “the race,” but the undefeated aspirations of African Americans for the future.[8]

Some proponents of kneeling during the anthem have argued it has nothing at all to do with the flag or the anthem, but is only about the heinous acts of police officers who should be guarding black men’s safety like everyone else’s. In another important sense, however, kneeling has everything to do with love of country: it is an expression of critical patriotism like that of Cole, LeCount, and Douglass, who believed that the United States is capable of greatness—that the idea of real human equality is worth fighting for, even when your fellow Americans refuse to acknowledge yours.

Perhaps the “lightning scorn of moral indignation” will produce a moment of discomfort before the big game, but drawing attention to the work Americans must still do to provide liberty and justice for all is not an affront to patriotism. It is a discomforting job African Americans have had to take up for generations— “the duty of a true patriot.”

 

[1] Ken Belson and Kevin Draper, “Trump Criticizes N.F.L. for Not Penalizing Anthem Kneeling,” New York Times, October 17, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/17/sports/football/nfl-anthem-protests-trump.html.

[2] Janice Williams, “Unlike the President, Most Americans Know NFL Kneelers Aren’t Protesting the Flag,” Newsweek, October 14, 2017, http://www.newsweek.com/nfl-protest-flag-donald-trump-685254.

[3] Louis Jacobson, “A Short History of the National Anthem, Protests and the NFL,” Politifact, September 25, 2017, http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/article/2017/sep/25/short-history-national-anthem-and-sports.

[4] Frederick Douglass, “Speech in Syracuse, New York, 1847,” in A Patriot’s Handbook, ed. Caroline Kennedy (New York: Hyperion, 2003), 202-203.

[5] Francis A. Walker, Ninth Census—Vol. I, The Statistics of the Population of the United States (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1872); Linda P. Gross and Theresa R. Snyder, Philadelphia’s 1876 Centennial Exhibition (Chicago: Arcadia Publishing, 2005), 111; J.S. Ingram, The Centennial Exhibition Described and Illustrated… (Philadelphia: Hubbard Bros., 1876), 47.

[6] “Another Branch,” Philadelphia Inquirer, April 5, 1873; The Press (Philadelphia), April 17 and 18, 1873.

[7] “Color Prejudice,” New National Era, May 22, 1873; “Amicable Adjustment,” Philadelphia Inquirer, May 12, 1873; Frederick Douglass, “Speech in Syracuse, New York, 1847,” 202-203.

[8] Fully 20 percent of Americans visited the 1876 Centennial World’s Fair in Philadelphia. About 5 percent tuned in for 2017’s first primetime NFL game. Rydell, All the World’s a Fair: Visions of American Empire at International Expositions, 1876-1916 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 3-5; NFL Communications, “Season Premiere of Thursday Night Football Draws an Audience of 15.7 Million Viewers Across All Platforms,” accessed November 11, 2017, https://nflcommunications.com/Pages/Season-Premiere-of-Thursday-Night-Football-Draws-an-Audience-of-15.7-Milion-Viewers-Acrross-All-Platforms.aspx; United States Census Bureau, “Population and Housing Unit Estimates,” accessed November 11, 2017, https://www.census.gov/programs-surveys/popest.html. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery, except in the case of incarceration; the 14th Amendment established birthright citizenship and equal protection under federal law regardless of color or creed; and the 15th Amendment guaranteed the right of male citizens to vote regardless of color. “America’s Founding Documents,” National Archives, accessed November 8, 2017, https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/amendments-11-27.

Christopher H. Hayashida-Knight

Christopher Hayashida-Knight completed a Ph.D. in History and Women’s Studies at Pennsylvania State University in 2017. He is currently teaching U.S. history at California State University, Chico, as well as working in the nonprofit sector. He serves on the board of directors of the Chico Peace & Justice Center. His research considers the social construction of African American women’s national identity in the period between the Civil War and World War I.

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