President Trump has called NFL players who kneel during the national anthem SOBs.
I have never played sports. A black man, I did grow up in the deep South, in the time of Jim Crow-legal racial segregation. I did grow up in an activist household. I did conduct voter registration of black people in 1968. I did march and protest, including sitting during the national anthem. I did, later, serve my country in the U.S. Navy during a time of racial turmoil and change in that branch of the military. And even while I served, I engaged in peaceful protest of ongoing racial inequities in the Navy.
Unlike the message coming from our current Commander in Chief, I received letters of appreciation from Navy leadership for my work to fight racial injustice in the Navy. In fact, from the captain of the ship, I received a letter of commendation for my service (1975) on the USS Independence’s Human Relations Advisory Team.
Our current president and others seem to think that I served in the U.S. Navy to honor the flag and a song. Don’t be ridiculous. I served our country to defend the U.S. Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic. Without the U.S. Constitution, both the national anthem and the flag are meaningless.
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Not the flag, but our Constitution grants us our rights as U.S. citizens. One of those is “… the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances,” a right that must include protest by not standing during the national anthem.
I am a proud U.S. Navy veteran, but I served in a time (1972-1976) when many in the Navy did not want black sailors like me (or my older and younger brothers) to be able to advance in rank. I did my service, though, in the belief that America will one day live up to the true American dream of freedom and equality for all its citizens.
While in the Navy, I worked against the existing racial discrimination of the Navy in a lot of ways. I trained and worked as a racial awareness group discussion leader. Known for that, when I walked the base at Naval Air Station Cecil Field, Fla., I saluted officers, saluted the flag, and I also raised my arm and fist in the black power salute to other African-American sailors. Patriotism and protest are not in competition with each other.
Look, we veterans are not all the same. We veterans did not all have the same motivations and experiences while we served. I would not dishonor the service of other veterans by trying to speak for all of us.
Speaking for myself, I did not put my life at risk on aircraft carriers (USS Intrepid, USS Independence) for a piece of cloth. Between my 20th and 24th birthdays, I was far away from home, in roaring (sometimes stormy) seas, walking through hangar decks, going up and down on ship-side elevators, surrounded by weapons of mass destruction, with F-8, A-4, S2A, war-aviation landing over my head.
I was out there doing my part to ensure that our constitution lives on to ground our American lives; to provide citizen rights to all of us, no matter our sex, race, creed, color, mental-health-condition, sexual orientation, education level, bodily condition, political affiliation, socioeconomic status, gender identity or age. I was out there to help ensure that any American citizen can raise their voice in peaceful protest, “… to petition the government for a redress of grievances,” however the citizen sees fit: kneeling during the national anthem, or raising a fist to the sounds of that anthem.
I am saddened that this Commander in Chief does not understand that.
Rupert W. Nacoste is Alumni Distinguished Undergraduate Professor at N.C. State and the author of “Taking on Diversity: How we can move from anxiety to respect.”