On this Memorial Day, my great-grandfather, Daniel Johnson, would have turned 95 years old.
He served this country in the Army through two wars — World War II and the Korean War. My family also celebrates his brother, my great-uncle, David Johnson, for his many years of service in the military.
When my great-grandfather passed away a few years ago, our family had a decorated military funeral with guards of honor, volley shots, and the American flag ceremoniously draped over his coffin.
Despite the examples of symbolic patriotism bestowed upon him during his death, my great-grandfather endured a life of endless racial discrimination in the deep South. He lived in Marianna, Arkansas, a small town that still has the visual reminders today of the Jim Crow era he was determined to escape growing up. When I spent summers visiting his house while my grandmother took care of him, we often saw Confederate flags flying beside American flags as if both symbols were worthy of equal praise.
One time, I asked him what was it like to defend and protect a nation abroad that didn’t do the same for him domestically. My great-grandfather came back from battle broken, isolated, and still treated as a sub-human. He told me what inspired him to keep going was knowing that future generations of his family would not have to go through the same thing.
When I once told him that a few students at my middle school refused to stand for the pledge of allegiance because it said “God” in it, he told me “it’s their right, we fought for them to have it.”
As I begin to reflect on why my great-grandfather fought for this nation’s freedoms — those indelible rights that he never fully got to experience as a Black man during his lifetime — I feel less patriotic than ever before, particularly during this Memorial Day. The very rights that he fought for all of us to have are now being threatened by some who are misrepresenting his service.
The NFL stands for nothing
Last Wednesday, I was disappointed when the NFL passed a policy that will fine teams for perceived disrespect of the American flag or national anthem. The policy, which was agreed upon by NFL team owners, explicitly include directives such as “all team and league personnel on the field shall stand and show respect for the flag and the Anthem” and consequences such as “the Commissioner will impose appropriate discipline on league personnel who do not stand and show respect for the flag and the Anthem.”
In other words, NFL owners are now disregarding the actual focus of what their mostly-Black players #TakeAKnee protests actually stood for and have chosen to infringe upon their First Amendment rights. A movement that was once a bold way to raise awareness about racial injustice and police brutality impacting Black and brown people has now turned into a misguided conversation on respecting national symbols.
The NFL’s stance now incorporates some of the same rationale used by President Donald Trump, who also turned the players’ protests into an argument about patriotism, once saying at a rally back in September 2017: “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. He is fired. He’s fired!”
Now, players who choose not to stand for the flag will have to do so off the field in order to avoid penalties. This policy once again speaks to an ongoing issue the NFL has had with allowing Black voices to dissent.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color,” Colin Kaepernick told NFL Media on August 26, 2016, the first time he took a knee in protest. “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.”
What’s ironic about the NFL and President Trump trying to enforce patriotism as a blind allegiance to American symbols is they have forgotten the message behind them. To many, the American flag and national anthem essentially represents freedom. America loves to pride itself on constitutionally having freedom of speech, press, religion, and assembly only to forget how this nation still significantly oppresses people of color who strive to exercise such rights.
Fighting for First Amendment rights
My great-grandfather fought for this country twice because he wanted people to have all the rights that the First Amendment bestows. Using his legacy and those of other veterans who died serving this country as a scapegoat to suppress free speech actually does little more than to undermine true patriotism.
Right now, I don’t feel as though our nation understands the definition of true patriotism. The service of our veterans are in vein the moment we forget what those American symbols truly represent.
Ernest Owens is the editor of Philadelphia magazine’s G Philly and CEO of Ernest Media Empire, LLC. The award-winning journalist has written for USA Today, NBC News, BET, HuffPost and several other major publications. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, orInstagram and ernestowens.