Standing for the Pledge of Allegiance used to be a matter of course, something most of us took for granted. The rare exception when I was a child was the family who were Jehovah’s Witnesses and who since 1943 had had a Constitutional right to sit during the Pledge. We were curious why our friend Becky sat out the Pledge and had a vague notion that it had something to do with what church she went to, but we didn’t worry about it or think that she loved our country any less than the rest of us. We were more concerned that members of her church thought all the rest of us were going to hell. It would be nice to think that even as children we understood that our flag symbolized Becky’s freedom not to do something that was against her religion.
What the flag symbolizes is at the heart of the current controversy about taking a knee during the National Anthem. Clearly there is a huge difference in opinions. Not standing for the National Anthem is viewed by some as a sign of disrespect. What exactly is being disrespected when an NFL player takes a knee instead of standing when the anthem is played? Is it the flag or something that the flag symbolizes? The flag being honored by the anthem symbolizes our country and, by extension, the freedoms guaranteed us as citizens of that country. Ironically, one of those freedoms is the freedom to protest peacefully.
There has been a law regarding the appropriate behavior during the National Anthem since 1932, but the law has been revised six times since then, and there are no penalties specified for not behaving appropriately. The laws have generally differentiated between behavior when the flag is displayed during the anthem and when it is not. The focus from the beginning was more on behavior during the playing of the song than on behavior regarding the flag. When the flag is not displayed, audience members are supposed to stand and face the band.
Is the refusal to stand for the National Anthem a show of disrespect for America’s servicemen and servicewomen? Is the flag a symbol of the military? “The Star Spangled Banner” was the anthem for the U. S. Navy before it was our national anthem. Perhaps the anthem is associated with those in the armed services because different behavior has always been expected from those in or having served in the military than from others—whether it was saluting or holding military headgear near the left shoulder so that the hand was over the heart.
Colin Kaepernick has made it clear from the beginning what he is protesting. He is protesting mistreatment of American citizens by other American citizens in positions of power. He sat on the bench for two games, and his silent protest was only noticed the third game. At that point, his teammate Eric Reid talked to him and retired Green Beret and former NFL player Nate Boyer about how to continue the protest. Reid writes, “We chose to kneel because it’s a respectful gesture. I remember thinking our posture was like a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy.” He continues, “It baffles me that our protest is still being misconstrued as disrespectful to the country, flag and military personnel. We chose it because it’s exactly the opposite. It has always been my understanding that the brave men and women who fought and died for our country did so to ensure that we could live in a fair and free society, which includes the right to speak out in protest.