In his famous 1963 "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. expressed his disappointment in what we would today call white allies. "I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner," Dr. King wrote, "but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can't agree with your methods of direct action.’"
On Monday Saints QB Drew Brees explained his objections to Colin Kaepernick’s silent protest of the national anthem, tweeting, "I agree with his protest, I DON'T agree [with] his METHOD."
Brees actually presented a lengthy argument against Kaepernick. After feeling it was misunderstood by some portion of readers, he boiled his thesis down to the message above. Which is, as Adam Johnson first pointed out, almost verbatim what Dr. King rebuked in his Birmingham Jail letter.
So many of Dr. King’s messages are timeless. How I wish this one wasn’t.
Brees’ argument is familiar to those of us who hear suburbanites pitch shrill complaints when Black Lives Matter protesters shut down the freeway, or what those in city halls and governor’s mansions grouse about when the pickets come to their steps. This Breesian construction is the safest and most meaningless response: "I agree with you that America suffers from systemic racism, but please let me go on blissfully untouched by it."
But what’s really fascinating is what lies underneath the arguments. It is here where we can understand and confront the divide.
Brees has a vision of what America is and what the flag and the anthem represent. He explains this at length in the ESPN interview linked above.
"I've been on five USO trips, so I've had a chance to meet and talk with a lot of military personnel. I feel like I have a pretty good understanding of the things that they go through. Also having family that have served and sitting around and listening to my grandfather talk about World War II, so maybe that gives me a heightened level of appreciation for them. But when I look at that flag, I think about them, too. I think about a lot of things. Like when I stand and listen to the national anthem with my hand over my heart, there is emotions that well up inside of me. Like, I could shed a tear every time the national anthem plays if I would allow myself because it's that powerful."
That is a perfectly valid response to the flag and the anthem.
Kaepernick also has a vision of what America is and what the flag and the anthem represent. "I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color," Kaepernick said over the weekend. "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."
Brees hears the anthem and sees his World War II veteran grandfather and the dozens of soldiers he’s met through his involvement with the USO. Kaepernick hears the anthem and sees Philando Castile, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner. These are not mutually exclusive visions. America can be worthy of pride and worthy of disgust. Even World War II provided lessons to this effect: while American soldiers liberated Europe, 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent were rounded up and incarcerated by our government. America can be worthy of pride and worthy of disgust. The examples, from our slave-owning Founding Fathers to the century of Jim Crow laws that followed emancipation, are endless.
Where Brees errs is in believing that his vision of America is the only acceptable version. Where Brees errs is in believing that the feeling in Kaepernick’s gut is somehow disrespectful to Brees’ grandfather and all those military families across our nation. Brees hears the opening notes of the anthem ring out through the stadium and sees the America he knows. His response to Kaepernick suggests he does not care to learn about the other America, the America discussed by Black Lives Matter, the America protested by Kaepernick. Brees said that he agrees with Kaepernick’s message. Based on everything else Brees said, that is quite hard to believe.
Kaepernick is not demanding that anyone join him in protest. But because of the power and the clarity of Kaepernick’s message, he is implicitly asking people like Brees and you and me to consider that which they honor, to consider the full breadth of America and not just the convenient parts.
Brees made it clear that he is uncomfortable doing so. And the words of Dr. King — unfortunately, in this case — live on.
* * *