Unintentionally, the defiance first exhibited by Colin Kapernick and later adopted by more than two hundred fifty NFL players, coaches, and owners (although with evolving and wide-ranging purposes) has provided Donald Trump with a new opportunity to dog-whistle his white nationalist base and feed his insatiable megalomania. Trump’s consistent aim—to divide the country and consolidate power in his petite pasty palms—has actually been bolstered by those who laud the kneelers while patting themselves on the back as if they too are modern-day revolutionaries. Rise up America, this is no time to be on your knees.
Setting aside the profound naiveté of those who are surprised they were so easily cast as unpatriotic—as anti-American—by Trump and his fellow lapel-pin patriots, expressing defiance during the national anthem is an epic strategic failure. That is not to say the kneelers are less patriotic than Trump, however, true patriots are those who embrace the symbols, norms, institutions, and laws of the United States, and who stand and fight to preserve them from any existential threat, even when that threat is the president of the United States. True patriots do not reject America’s symbols; they redefine and magnify American values to forge a new more inclusive identity. No American in contemporary history did this as well as the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
King understood that to succeed he had to unite people in support of a higher interpretation of American values and pursued his aims within and in support of the nation’s laws and institutions, always in a non-violent manner even while being jailed, abused, and eventually assassinated. King’s dream—that changed America and the world—was sought with a transcendent sense of grace while never bowing his head (unless in prayer) and certainly never kneeling in defiance of the flag or the national anthem. He stood tall against the tyranny of racism and delivered America to a much better place. He even succeeded in getting a good ol’ Texas boy and president, Lyndon Baines Johnson, to relinquish political control of the southern states to the Republican Party (where they have remained ever since) in order to enact the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
King’s approach carried significantly more risk, and could not have felt nearly as rewarding as players who kneel in defiance while television cameras amplify their celebrity. But, King recognized that in the end success depended on being seen as the greater patriot than those who perpetuated the sadistic and exploitative postbellum frameworks of Jim Crow. His updated version of American identity offered a more genuine interpretation of Thomas Jefferson’s aspiration “all men are created equal.” Perhaps most importantly, however, was the way King saw himself as a servant rather than a celebrity. He explained in one of his lesser-cited sermons, “The Drum Major Instinct” that greatness was born from service. Drawing on the lessons Jesus gave his disciples, King said,
If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant.
Vanishing the existential threat Trump poses to the United States will require a great deal more effort than kneeling during our anthem. It requires a level of service and commitment that establishes a higher level of patriotism and elevates American values to forge a new identity. Rather than averting our eyes and praise away from our flag we must hoist it high to preserve the American Dream and to reignite respect throughout the world. It is our anthem and our flag, not Trump’s. As the saying goes, failure is not an option. Every day in every way we must stand up for a better America that serves the interests of all Americans in a thoughtful and compassionate manner. Do not fail wishing you had done more; do not look back and wonder how could this happen? Rise up now for yourself, your family, and the promise of the American Dream.