In 1968, Tommie Smith and John Carlos made history when they stood on the winner’s podium during the Summer Olympics and gave the Black Power salute, a silent gesture that ignited a firestorm of criticism, anger, and immense criticism from the American public. One half of the legendary icons, who are credited with “politicizing the Olympics,” is speaking out in defense of San Francisco 49er quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, who refused to stand for the national anthem out of political protest in lieu of America’s egregious injustices, according to USA Today.
“Colin is 28 years old and realizing that things are not quite like what ‘they’ said it would be,” Smith observed. “He’s just speaking out (but) he used a platform that many Americans don’t agree with. He’s being vilified in how he brings the truth out. I support him because he’s bringing the truth out – regardless of how it’s done.”
Kaepernick defended his decision to sit during the national anthem earlier this week, stating that gesture is bigger than the NFL. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
The Star Spangled Banner, written in 1814 by Francis Scott Key, detailed the battle of Fort McHenry. Although Americans only sing the first verse, the third verse is particularly telling of Key’s political and racial perspectives by mentioning enslavement. Key himself was a slave owner and publicly anti-abolitionist, viewing Black folks as inferior.
Kaepernick joins a legion of athletes who made strong political statements throughout their careers, promptly receiving backlash from the public. In 1967, Muhammad Ali refused to serve in Vietnam, and was stripped of his heavyweight title. Jackie Robinson, the first black player in major league baseball, wrote in his autobiography, “I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag. I know that I am a black man in a white world.”
“The American ritual of the national anthem has always been a crucible for patriotism and protest,” writes AJ Willingham of CNN. “It presents a particularly fraught dynamic for sports stars, since sports events are often so closely tied with the rhetoric of American pride. When a highly visible opinion comes up against a highly visible symbol, the result is always incendiary.”