BY GREGORY MEEKS
This past weekend was a conflicting one for me and—as I would imagine—for countless others, particularly of my generation. On Saturday, I awoke to news that the president of the United States had referred to NFL players voicing their opposition to police brutality and systematic racism as “sons of bitches” during a rally in Huntsville, Alabama.
That many of the players alluded to are black men was not lost on me or anyone else who is aware of President Trump’s background—one which includes being charged by the federal government for housing discrimination against African Americans, an unyielding effort to persecute the Central Park Five long after they were acquitted and, more recently, as the standard bearer of the “birther” crusade against former President Barack Obama.
The combination of the president’s own checkered record of racist invective and the setting for Friday night’s outburst was striking to those like myself who can never forget the history of Bull Connor’s abhorrent tenure as Alabama’s public safety commissioner.
Then, on Sunday, I felt proud watching hundreds of NFL players taking a knee or locking arms with their teammates to show a unified force against the president’s loathsome behavior. They were not alone. These signs of unity were inspiring as they offered a glimpse of what we are capable of accomplishing when united against ill intentions.
Indeed, it was somehow fitting that a sport that helped the nation heal after the Civil War, and which the late nineteenth-century legendary Yale University football coach Walter Camp saw as the training ground for the next generation of soldiers, would serve as a forum for this weekend’s debates on patriotism, allegiance to the flag and fidelity to one’s country and countrymen.
While I would like to say that I walked away from this weekend rejuvenated by what transpired in stadiums throughout the country on Sunday, I must concede that the events as a whole were dispiriting because they revealed how issues my generation advocated against are still unresolved almost half-a-century later.
It pains me because these weren’t just concerns of my generation, they were also many of the same concerns that my father’s generation sought to overcome. My father was a professional boxer in the 1940s who—along with other black athletes—felt obligated to use any platform he had to fight back against the discrimination so harshly experienced by him and other descendants of slaves in America. As one who saw my father’s struggle and had the great fortune of knowing Muhammad Ali when I was a young man, I am heartened to see Colin Kaepernick take the baton and give voice to tough racial issues that continue to plague our nation.
My father was also a World War II veteran who fought in one of the Army’s segregated units. Like other African American World War II veterans, my father returned home after the war to a country still unwilling to bestow upon him the full rights of citizenship. African American soldiers like my father were denied full access to the G.I. Bill, to the ballot, and—since we are talking about sports—to the playing field in two of this nation’s three major sports.
While football integrated before basketball and baseball, it was still not until 1962 that the football team that calls the nation’s capital home saw it fit to desegregate its roster.
Therefore, as I watched one person after another seek to reframe the silent protest against systematic racism undertaken by NFL players into a protest against the flag or veterans, this disingenuous logic hit home in a number of ways for me. Far too often, African American identities are distorted into their separate parts never to be made whole again.
To some, it might be incongruent to fathom a congressman and the son of a Veteran stand with Kaep, but it is not hard for me to reconcile my oath of office and allegiance to the flag with my support for the NFL players and other activists and protestors fighting racism. Those realities are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, as a black man in the United States, upholding my fidelity to America while also holding my country accountable is what has made me whole.
U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks represents New York’s 5th district.