October 10, 2017 10:12:01 AM
An open letter to the Starkville-Oktibbeha Consolidated School District
I have just been reading about the seven Starkville High volleyball players who took a knee during the anthem at last week's game, and the probability that the Lowndes County School Board will take up a proposal requiring all athletic participants to stand during the playing of the National Anthem. While I find this response disturbing, I cannot say that it surprises me. The confusion and uproar over these protests has a lot of people up in arms. My concern, as a parent of four children in the SOCSD, is that the district will adopt policies to restrict protest or punish protesting students. I cannot think of a worse way to model and celebrate the freedoms we have in this country than by taking them away from students we are teaching to be good citizens.
What exactly are the protests about? I can't say that I know exactly, it seems to depend who you ask. But I don't think that it matters all that much. Whether we agree or not with the subject of the protests is not really the concern. Whether it is students protesting real (or even imagined) problems, or other students exhibiting solidarity with them, it is not the place of the schools to squash speech that does not interfere with instruction. Nor should it matter that some people choose to be offended by the protests, any more than if these students were kneeling down to pray. (Tim Tebow certainly endured his share of derision, but no one tried to stop him from thanking God for his on-field successes.) To my mind, the subject of the protest is far less important than the right to make it.
People in this country are fond of talking about our God-given rights, and seemingly just as fond of denying or taking those rights away. Let's be frank: no one ever got rights simply by asking for them. They earned them by fighting for them every inch of the way, and will lose them again if they aren't used regularly and defended vigorously. (Isn't that why the NRA spends so much money on politics? Isn't that why there are so many court challenges to laws limiting voter registration?) Expecting people who believe a change needs to come to sit quietly and wait for it to be handed to them is like expecting your teenager to change the radio station when you sit quietly by and say nothing. It simply doesn't work that way, and people who complain about protesters are only showing their preference for the status quo.
Regarding the particular (and seemingly very popular) method of protesting by kneeling during the National Anthem, I find the arguments against it disingenuous. First, there is no law, anywhere, requiring any particular action during the anthem. Standing hat-in-hand and hand-over-heart is fine, if that is how you choose to honor flag and country. Choosing this time to call attention to injustice by kneeling quietly in place (has anyone stood up and screamed obscenities at the flag, or marched around the field with signs singing protest songs during the anthem? I thought not. But maybe they should.) is far from disrespectful, and in no way interferes with others. If you choose to take that moment and honor the men and women who have lived and died serving the ideals represented by the flag, that also is fine. But remember that they fought and sometimes died to uphold ideals of equality and free speech. Exercising our freedoms also honors those who have done the heavy lifting of preserving them.
A common refrain in the pushback against these protests is that people who have benefited from the freedoms and opportunities of America (especially millionaire football players) don't have any reason or standing to protest. This argument is absurd. Should only slaves be allowed to protest slavery? I suppose that once Frederick Douglass had escaped to freedom he should have just kept his mouth shut? To the contrary, people with advantages have more opportunity to be heard, and I am proud of students (including athletes) who take advantage of their prominence to advocate for change, even change that might make me uncomfortable. After all, I have just as much right to speak my mind as they do, and I am not afraid to do so on the level playing field afforded me by the 1st amendment. I would rather fight and lose a fair exchange of ideas than abuse my power by silencing those with opposing views. That's the real American way, and a far more important lesson for our children that they should always avoid offending others. We owe them that.
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