By Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications
Invoking the memories of Emmett Till and Muhammad Ali, Professor Jonathan L. Walton, the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, spoke out in support of San Francisco 49ers Quarterback Colin Keapernick during Morning Prayers Thursday.
Last Friday before the preseason game between the 49ers and the Green Bay Packers, Kaepernick expressed his feelings about the state of race relations in America by refusing to stand during the singing of the national anthem. Thursday, the quarterback, who kneeled before the national anthem, was greeted in San Diego with a chorus of boos from Chargers fans.
Kaepernick is facing a swirl of condemnation and questions about his patriotism from across the country. But he is also finding support for his cause from other athletes and from Walton.
“I have embraced a new sports hero this week,” Walton said during his address at Morning Prayers in Holden Chapel Thursday. “His name is Colin Kaepernick. He has drawn the ire of many sports fans this season because he remained seated silently on the bench during the singing of the Star-Spangled-Banner. His aim is to call attention to unjust policing of communities of color and how very few are being held accountable for the death of unarmed citizens at the hands of police officers.”
Patriotism is not just about military service or flag-waving, Walton said. Patriotism is also expressed in holding the nation accountable for injustice and questioning leadership when the rights of any group of people are marginalized, he said.
“There is not a song beautiful enough to ignore the blues of America’s oppressed, nor is there a flag big enough to cover up this nation’s injustices,” Walton told the audience. “But true patriotism involves having the true courage to place the United States of America under the microscope of moral indignation.”
American history tells stories of great heroes of the nation’s military battles around the world. The walls of the Memorial Church list the names of 1,113 men and women who sacrificed their lives in World War I, World War II, the Korean Conflict and Vietnam War. Walton said he is inspired when he looks at the lists of names in the church.
“But just because I am impressed and inspired by parts of history does not mean that I must remain oblivious to other aspects of history,” he said. “As President (Drew Gilpin) Faust reminded us yesterday, history has many dimensions, some parts beautiful and sublime and some parts tragic and painful.”
Walton recounted the story of Emmett Till, an African-American teenager murdered in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman in 1955. The woman’s husband Roy Bryant and his half-brother J.W. Milam were acquitted of the murder in part because the defense painted the 14-year-old as the son of a serial rapist. Till’s father, Louis, was executed by the U.S. Army for allegedly killing an Italian woman and raping two others. His sealed records, never revealed to his family, were uncovered by two Mississippi senators during the trial and used by the southern media to attack Emmett’s character.
Keapernick said he will continue to refuse to stand for the national anthem. He told reporters at a news conference Saturday that he is not “going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” Thursday he announced that will donate $1 million to groups that aid people affected by racial inequality and police brutality.
The quarterback’s actions, Walton said, are truly patriotic in the same way Muhammad Ali stood for racial quality, and LGBTQ leaders such as Marsha Johnson and Sylvia Rivera stand for gender equality.
“For the true lover of this country is willing to rebuke the nation when it’s wrong and do all in its power to make it right, not by ignoring or excusing its sins, but by bringing its sins out in the open,” he said. “So if this means sitting down during the Star Spangled Banner to draw attention to injustices, then so be it. Maybe one day all citizens of this nation just might be able to sing the Star-Spangled Banner and actually believe it.”
Full transcript of Jonathan L. Walton’s remarks