The Other Men and Women Who Fought and Died for Freedom

The big national debate this past week centered around professional football players taking a knee during the National Anthem in order to protest what they view as systemic inequality in America’s criminal justice system. Many Americans, spurred on by a campaign speech by President Trump and several subsequent presidential “tweets,” expressed outrage at the protest, claiming, among other things, that it disrespects the flag and the men and women of our military who fight and die for our freedom.

Let me be clear up front: I have tremendous respect for members of our military and the sacrifices they and their families routinely make in service to our country. I believe that we, as a nation, owe them both respect and gratitude.

But the respect we rightfully owe members of our military should not be used to conflate all issues surrounding notions of liberty and freedom in this country, particularly when it comes to our civil liberties. To do so does a disservice both to history, as well as a great many everyday people who fought and died in pursuit of liberty.

Lost in the conflation of these issues is an important fact: that the greatest threats to our basic civil liberties have almost always come from within our own borders, not some foreign power or regime. While wars have been fought across the globe, the battle for civil liberties has largely been waged in our streets, along docks, on busses, at lunch counters, and in courtrooms — not distant battlefields. The people who fought and sometimes died in these struggles most often wore everyday clothes, not uniforms, and were seldom buried with honor or distinction. And in fact, in many cases, it was men wearing uniforms who assisted in putting them down. This is far from a uniquely American problem.

[T]he greatest threats to our basic civil liberties have almost always come from within our own borders, not some foreign power or regime.

March 29, 1968, Memphis, Tennessee, USA — Civil Rights activists, flanked by tanks, are blocked by National Guardsmen brandishing bayonets while trying to stage a protest on Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee. Image by Bettmann/CORBIS

I know a lot of people don’t like to hear this. We like our history whitewashed, scrubbed clean of unpleasant truths, complex realities, and above all, culpability. We prefer an oversimplified mythology, with clearly-defined enemies and heroes in white hats. But such a worldview simply doesn’t reflect reality, and pretending otherwise doesn’t truly honor anyone, including the men and women in our military. Mostly, it does a tremendous disservice to many others who fought and sacrificed in the long and seemingly endless struggle for civil rights here at home.

As always, thanks for reading, and my best to both those who put on a uniform in order to serve and protect, and those willing to take a stand for injustice and inequality.

– T