I am a veteran of the U.S. Air Force. I used to be a civics teacher. You might guess that I have strong thoughts about patriotism and civic responsibility, and you would be right. Our national anthem stirs strong feelings in me, and I am grateful every time I hear it.
But part of my love of our country stems from what our anthem, and flag, and other symbols of American democracy represent: the ideals upon which our nation was founded. Our country has not always lived up to those ideals. In fact, Thomas Jefferson, the author of the very Declaration of Independence that maintained, “All men are created equal,” was a slaveholder. But the freedoms embodied in our founding documents live on, including those of speech, assembly and political expression.
It’s for that reason that I support the First Amendment rights of our student athletes to stand or kneel during the national anthem as their consciences lead them.
Freedom of speech and expression are generally protected by law within our schools as long as they do not disrupt the academic environment. All of us in Durham Public Schools are working to help our students respect each other’s rights to speech and expression in shared space, even when they disagree. Both perspectives are important: those who stand in honor of our country’s promise and those who kneel in recognition that our country has further to go.
Fortunately, our own educators are experienced at helping our students explore and learn about these issues.
Specifically, City of Medicine Academy social studies teacher Tracey Barrett joined former Jordan teacher Kate Harris in developing a lesson plan published Oct. 26 in The New York Times that explores current controversies over protests during the playing of the national anthem. It is posted to the NYT’s The Learning Network website.
Their “Text-to-Text” civics lesson asks students to reflect on two documents with very different perspectives. One of them is noted author, speaker and former slave Frederick Douglass’s 1852 speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” In it he asserted that he could not celebrate Independence Day in the same way as his affluent abolitionist audience. By contrast, NYT columnist David Brooks wrote on Sept. 16 that athletes considering taking a knee during the anthem should instead stand out of shared unity and purpose.
The lesson challenges students to read both texts and “begin a conversation that we’d like to encourage within the safe spaces of our classrooms – one that explores the purposes of patriotism and the meaning of democracy to all our citizens.” The lesson includes key questions, activity sheets, excerpts from the Douglass speech and Brooks column, a history of protest in American sports, and other materials.
This is what I want to come from the controversy: greater learning and understanding among our students and indeed our community. Our athletic events will of course continue to open with the national anthem to honor our country and its ideals. It is important to me that our students and community treat each other with dignity and respect before, during, and after the anthem.
As long as our students do not infringe on each other’s rights of free expression and do not threaten others for their beliefs, I support their right to participate in the anthem as they choose.
Bert L’Homme is superintendent of Durham Public Schools.