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THE NATIONAL ANTHEM & ALMA MATERS:

When Creeds and Deeds Drastically Differ

 

                There I was, the black grandson of a slave, the son of a black sharecropper, part of a historic occasion, a symbolic hero to my people. The air was sparkling.  The sunlight was warm. The band struck up the national anthem. The flag billowed in the wind. It should have been a glorious moment for me as the stirring words of the national anthem poured from the stands. Perhaps, it was, but then again, perhaps, the national anthem could be called the theme song for a drama called The Noble Experiment.  …As I write this 20 years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made.”

                                                                                -Jackie Robinson-

 

Few if any of us can compare to Jackie Robinson in terms of achievements.  However, regardless of their station in life and, with great justification, many African Americans could say essentially, “…I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man/woman in a white world…”  Not only have they too never had it made, they also suffer from what others do to them because of their race.  As one cartoonist dramatized the matter, “Unarmed Philando Castile, Unarmed Walter Scott, Unarmed Sandra Bland, Unarmed Tamir Rice, and Unarmed Freddie Gray …Also not standing during the National Anthem.”  (The Washington Post, September 3, 2016, p. A19). 

Many people have no doubt attended sporting events and witnessed people walk, talk, eat, drink, not remove their hats, not face the flag, not place their hands over their hearts, and, indeed, sit while the National Anthem was being played.  Therefore, in the case of Colin Kaepernick (pictured below), could it be that hypocrisy is at work, that the negative responses were a function of him having embarrassed some people by publicly protesting our racial sins? 

Americans must experience a considerable amount of discomfort if we are to be refined into what our national anthem proffers, i.e., “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”  We can’t on the one hand claim that we welcome “…your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,…” and, on the other hand, be a country in which poverty runs rampant; economic mobility is hampered for the vast majority; incarceration rates are the highest in the world; gender equality is elusive; a very large number of children are being poorly educated; racism is pervasive; and a small minority control the vast majority of the wealth.

  The recent “bee in the bonnet” related to the National Anthem is a good place to begin clarifying facts and fictions given that our National Anthem was written by a slave holder whose notion of  “the land of the free” did not include people of African descent.  On the contrary, while serving as a U.S. Attorney, Francis Scott Key was a “stand-up guy” for racism!  As Christopher Wilson indicated, “…Key not only profited from slaves, he harbored racist conceptions of American citizenship and human potential.   Africans in America, he said, were: ‘a distinct and inferior race of people, which all experience proves to be the greatest evil that afflicts a community.’”  (Smithsonian.com).   In addition to not whitewashing Key’s past indiscretions, we should not gloss over the fact that some currently standing for the National Anthem might be Klansmen and other White supremacists when the National Anthem is played and the American flag is flown for their newest spokesperson, i.e., the 2016 Republican nominee for President.

As with the National Anthem and the significant shortcomings of our nation, there have long been discrepancies between the deeds of leading institutions of higher education and what is expressed in their creeds.  For details, one would profit from reading Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America's Universities by Craig Steven Wilder.  The list of institutions that benefitted from slavery includes schools such as Georgetown, Emory, Brown, Dartmouth, Princeton, Rutgers, Williams, Yale, North Carolina at Chapel Hill, University of Virginia, and Harvard. 

Let us not also forget that the court-ordered desegregation of public educational institutions began in 1954 and, notwithstanding the Supreme Court’s admonition to do so with “all deliberate speed,” some of those who did stand for the National Anthem also used the worst forms of White supremacy to obstruct desegregation.  As Debbie Elliot recalled in her October 1, 2012 article, when James Meredith integrated Ole Miss, “The town of Oxford erupted. It took some 30,000 U.S. troops, federal marshals and national guardsmen to get James Meredith to class after a violent campus uprising. Two people were killed and more than 300 injured. Some historians say the integration of Ole Miss was the last battle of the Civil War.”  http://www.wbur.org/npr/161573289/integrating-ole-miss-a-transformative-deadly-riot

Thousands upon thousands of African Americans were scarred emotionally, psychologically and physically during the process of desegregating colleges and universities.  Many of my African American alumni peers (1960s and 1970s graduates) are still reeling from the negative race-related things that occurred to them while attending Pitt.  A few years ago, when the African American Alumni Council embarked on an effort to reconnect them to Pitt, it sometimes took more than an hour for some to talk about and begin to purge themselves of their negative feelings regarding the racist things that happened to them at Pitt.  Notwithstanding the remarkable progress at Pitt, there were those who had been so deeply offended that they refuse to reconnect with Pitt, much less sing the Alma Mater. 

 

As opposed to the “wise and glorious” line in the Pitt Alma Mater, some alumni have not forgotten the inglorious history related to Olympic Gold Medalist, Mr. John Woodruff.   Pittsburgh-based Communication Consultant Robert Hill wrote in his September 7, 2016 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article, “…Notwithstanding the Olympic achievements of black Americans in 1936, in 1937 the U.S. Naval Academy in Jim Crow Annapolis, Md., announced it would not provide accommodations for black New York University and Pitt student-athletes for a track meet it was hosting. NYU, my undergraduate alma mater, where Mr. Woodruff (pictured below) later earned a master’s degree, consequently withdrew from participation. The Pitt team, though, took part in the meet, but, because Mr. Woodruff didn’t meet the qualification of being white, the world’s best 800-meter runner stayed behind…” 

To Pitt’s subsequent credit, Hill added, “…While hosting Mr. Woodruff on the Pitt campus to celebrate the 70th anniversary of his Berlin victory, I witnessed the university issue an apology to him for sending its track team to Annapolis without him in 1937…”   Given the recognition he brought to his country and university juxtaposed with what the U.S. Naval Academy and Pitt did to him at the time of his distinguished athletic achievement, why would it have been appalling if Mr. Woodruff had at that time refused to stand for the National Anthem or sing his Alma Mater?  It takes a Saint to, 70 years later, return his Olympic Gold Medal to Pitt to be permanently displayed.  Few of us achieve that stature but some do toil in the vineyards, protesting in accordance with our Constitutional rights.

I worked at Pitt for more than 4 decades during which time much of my energy was devoted to helping my Alma Mater [1] recruit, admit, retain and graduate African American students; [2] hire and contribute to the advancement of African American staff, faculty and administrators; [3] engage in teaching, research and community service related to African Americans; and [4] maintain a campus community committed to diversity and inclusion.   Progress came at a very protracted pace.

While working to affect race-related improvements at Pitt, particularly in the late 1960s and the 1970s, it would have been so easy to simply not stand for the National Anthem or Alma Mater.  Instead, my emotions were severely tested when my life was threatened several times.  I found the struggle to be so psychologically draining that one morning, when I approached the office building in which I worked, I began to cry, then walked away, and did not return until the next day.  Many times, when it came to singing my Alma Mater, my throat became dry, my lips quivered, I grimaced, and, although I stood, I could not sing.   

When it comes to someone protesting by not standing for and/or singing the National Anthem or their Alma Mater, we must never forget Frederick Douglass’ words, “…If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters…” 

If you don’t want the “thunder, lighting, and roar of the ocean’s many waters,” then do your part in helping our nation synchronize its deeds and creeds.  Let us each do our parts so that the “tomorrow” in Langston Hughes poem comes sooner than later.

I, too sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
Tomorrow,
I'll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody'll dare
Say to me,
"Eat in the kitchen,"
Then.
Besides,
They'll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed--
I, too, am America.


 

Jack L. Daniel

Co-Founder, Freed Panther Society

Vice Provost and Professor, Emeritus

Pittsburgh Urban Media Contributor

 

September 7, 2016

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