As one gets older, appreciation for great teachers grows. One such teacher, for me, was my third-grade teacher, Mrs. Stokes. She was a stately woman, a member of the World War II generation. She knew many who gave their lives for this great country of ours. Her patriotism was evidenced by her insistence that we join her in standing to sing the national anthem and recite the Pledge of Allegiance each morning.
Mrs. Stokes taught the history behind the national anthem and the flag salute. We were deeply moved. We then placed our hands over our hearts and sang the national anthem. Tears of youthful gratitude were shed by many.
That first day, a classmate, who sat kitty-corner from me, did not rise or sing the national anthem. Patricia’s quiet refusal to stand did not go unnoticed. She endured sneers from classmates. That very morning, Mrs. Stokes had a quiet conversation with Patricia.
The following day, before singing the anthem and offering the Pledge of Allegiance, Mrs. Stokes provided further instruction. Smiling tenderly at Patricia, Mrs. Stokes explained to the class that Patricia was sitting as a matter of religious conscience. Mrs. Stokes taught us that each time we sing and offer the Pledge, we should remember Patricia’s courage and understand that we were standing for all of our rights. We, including Patricia, felt sublimely unified each day with the singing of the national anthem.
Today, as I teach about the founding of America, and particularly as I teach about James Madison, the father of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, I am reminded of Mrs. Stokes and Patricia. Madison believed that “Conscience is the most sacred of all property.” For Madison, the right of conscience is a natural, God-given right that no legitimate government or goodly people will deny another.
Madison understood what we learned from Mrs. Stokes — equal liberty and respect for another’s rights is our grand unifying value as a nation. Madison feared a world in which the value of liberty might be forgotten and Mrs. Stokes remembered a Germany where citizens were required to stand and salute.
The practice of some NFL players to take a knee, respectfully and non-violently, during the singing of the national anthem is reminiscent of Patricia’s courageous act of conscience. Patricia risked the scorn of her classmates for sitting and the NFL players are being vilified for kneeling, to protest racial injustice, during the singing of the national anthem.
Each kneeling player also pays a significant economic cost. They harm their personal brand in the eyes of many consumers, resulting in lost marketing income. NFL clubs, in turn, bear significant losses. The owners recently gathered to affirm their rule that players “should” stand respectfully during the national anthem. Despite President Trump’s goading, however, the owners also affirmed the players’ right to kneel.
The owners went further. They listened to the substance of concerns expressed by the players regarding racial inequity. The owners were persuaded and committed to find a forum for airing those concerns. They share the players’ hopes that we, as a nation, will make it a priority to deal with issues that divide us.
The players are protesting racial inequity. Black men are over five times more likely to be incarcerated than their white counterparts. Only 23 percent of black Americans have a college degree compared to 43 percent of whites. Black Americans constitute 13 percent of the population but account for less than 3 percent of our nation’s wealth. President Reagan’s appointee to serve as chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, Alan Greenspan, declared, “I consider income inequality the most dangerous part of what is going on in the United States.”
As Americans, we may differ as how best to deal with issues of racial inequity. However, we ignore them at our peril, just as ignorance of the rights of another threatens national unity and each individual’s rights. We should be proud, therefore, of the players for exercising their right of conscience at a high personal cost.
As I stand, hand over heart, and sing the national anthem, I am thankful for American courage that comes in many forms. I think of Patricia, the NFL players, Mrs. Stokes and James Madison. Most of all, I reflect on those who gave their lives for the cause of liberty. In Francis Scott Key’s immortal words, may we ever be “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
Rodney K. Smith directs the Center for Constitutional Studies at Utah Valley University. The thoughts expressed are his own and not those of the university. He may be contacted at [email protected].