White House Visits and Rebel Flags

A month for reflecting on symbolism and protest, from the football field to the statehouse

Nelson's Rum

April can often feel like a rerun of key moments from America’s first 90 years. April 9 is the anniversary of Robert E. Lee’s 1865 surrender at Appomattox, which preceded John Wilkes Booth’s assassination of Abraham Lincoln by just five days. Last week, Massachusetts celebrated Patriots’ Day—commemorating the Battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775—on April 17, which this year fell a day after Washington, D.C.’s Emancipation Day, a remembrance of the District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act of 1862.

In a fun coincidence for those of us who are New England sports fans, the actual anniversary of the Battles of Lexington and Concord, April 19, was also the day on which the Super Bowl-champion New England Patriots visited the White House. Under any other President, this event would have been simply another fun reminder of a miracle comeback. Instead, under current circumstances, it was a moment of cognitive dissonance.

Patriotic symbolism and sports fandom have always had an uneasy relationship in the United States. One need look no further than the vitriolic reaction to the famous black power salute of American 200-meter medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos during their medal ceremony at the 1968 Mexico City Summer Olympics to see just how inhospitable public opinion can become when legitimate protest interrupts nationalist bombast. (It bears noting that the International Olympic Committee also condemned the athletes). Overwrought reactions to then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protests last year are a clear present-day parallel.

A silver lining to the 1968 story is that the Americans received some support from unexpected quarters. On the podium with Smith and Carlos was Australian silver medalist Peter Norman, who joined the Americans in wearing a badge representing the Olympic Project for Human Rights. And the U.S. men’s rowing team—eight white Harvard students—issued a statement in support of the sprinters.

Such solidarity was also evident in the various reactions to Kaepernick’s protest. At the height of the controversy over the 49ers quarterback, Patriots defensive end Chris Long gave a somewhat convoluted but nonetheless thoughtful defense of Kaepernick’s right to be heard. Other white NFL affiliates also voiced respect for Kaepernick’s right to protest, notably Ravens coach John Harbaugh. As for the Patriots’ White House visit, Long was one of five players—and the only non-African-American—who declared that he would be skipping it for political reasons.

One can debate ad nauseam whether refusing to stand for the national anthem or declining an invitation to the White House is an appropriate mode of protest, or whether failing to take such a stand signals complicity in injustice. What is undeniable is that the injustices prompting these actions are real and that progress against them is stagnating. The Trump administration’s policy positions grow more backward by the day on fundamental issues like police brutality and women’s rights, from Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ hostile review of Justice Department oversight of police departments to Trump’s recent signing of a bill to allow states and localities to defund Planned Parenthood.

Yet, in the face of these attacks, one portion of our body politic prefers to maintain symbolic patriotism in lieu of attending to the ideals that patriotism is meant to celebrate. Ironically, the same constellation of Trump supporters who take the greatest offense at protests like Kaepernick’s also includes people whose own use of symbolism represents a far greater attack on American patriotism than an athlete’s actions during the national anthem.

The special election for South Carolina’s fifth congressional district underscores this disconnect perfectly. All of the Republicans in the GOP primary are attempting to ride Trump’s coattails, but one—Sheri Few, whose slogan is “Make America America Again”—has one-upped them all by running an ad condemning two of her opponents for voting to take the Confederate battle flag off the grounds of the South Carolina State House in 2015. She is only one of many Trump supporters who have interpreted his election as license to fly this symbol of rebellion and hate—and who simultaneously dare to claim the mantle of true patriotism in present-day political debates.

Though a depressing development, the resurgence of the Confederate flag issue in this month of remembrance is fitting because it reminds us how the dynamics of debates over symbolism and memorialization can change with context. Just as knee-jerk appeals to symbolic patriotism can quash necessary dissent, so too can the historically illiterate flaunting of manifestly unpatriotic symbols become a rallying cry for those who would rather pay homage to a mythic past than confront current problems.

In our April commemorations of the American experience, then, we ought to be cognizant of patriotism’s many forms. Indeed, it is often acts of protest—from the stand of the colonists at Lexington to the fight abolitionists waged against slavery long before Union armies marched south—which prevent ideals of liberty and equality from giving way to unthinking complacency towards injustices fatal to the American project.

Nelson L. Barrette ’17, a former Crimson Editorial Chair, is a History concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

Tags