Frederick Douglass on Patriotism and Taking A Knee

taking a knee
Colin Kaepernick (#7) takes a knee

M. Davout

A week after Super Bowl Sunday, I was reading Frederick Douglass’s “Fourth of July Address,” given by the intrepid abolitionist and eminent public intellectual on July 5, 1852 to several hundred spectators in Rochester, New York. It struck me then how contemporary Douglass’s antebellum insights into the nature of patriotism in America seemed, especially in the wake of an NFL season steeped in controversy over football players (mostly African-American) taking a knee during the national anthem.  Their symbolic protest, dismissed by some, notably including a tweeting president, as unpatriotic, was intended to highlight how police encounters with people of color in this country all too often and disproportionately end in unjustified uses of deadly force.

800px-Frederick_Douglass_by_Samuel_J_Miller,_1847-52
Frederick Douglass near the time of the Rochester Speech, given on the 5th of July 1852

At the time of his Fourth of July Address, Douglass was about fifteen years removed from a state of enslavement he managed, against steep odds, to escape and had become an orator of note in abolitionist circles. Attesting to a sense of trepidation in accepting an invitation to speak before such a large audience on their august day of national celebration, Douglass praised the generation of 1776 (“your fathers,” he calls them) for “lov[ing] their country better than their own private interests” and for their “solid manhood” in “preferr[ing] revolution to peaceful submission to bondage.”

Douglass then reminded his audience that, while it is easy in present times to celebrate the founders for resisting British oppression, “to pronounce against England, and in favor of the cause of the colonies” in the 1770s meant being pilloried and browbeaten as “plotters of mischief, agitators and rebels, dangerous men.”  Moving beyond this critique of the easy and self-congratulatory patriotism of his contemporaries, Douglass raised the prospect that the founders’ great deeds might even be evoked by men of tyrannical intent: “The cause of liberty may be stabbed by the men who glory in the deeds of your fathers.”

Douglass went on to warn his listeners, and free citizens of the American republic generally, against shirking their own responsibility for carrying on the emancipatory tradition celebrated each Fourth of July–“You have no right to wear out and waste the hard-earned fame of your fathers to cover your indolence.”

While there is much more to Douglass’s powerful address, his opening discourse on the patriotic meaning of the Fourth of July provides a way of dousing the “fire and fury” that has been generated by the right-wing media around the symbolic protest started by Colin Kaepernick in 2016 and seeing the significance of that protest with a quiet clarity.

Douglass’s Fourth of July Address warns against the self-serving belief that routinized, programmed patriotic gesture is equivalent to a true love of liberty.  He daringly calls out those who would abuse patriotic gesture in order to control others. His words remind us that the struggle for freedom is always a work in progress and that it is too easy to celebrate its provisional achievement after the hard and risk-laden work is done by others.

Douglass’s speech is part of a tradition of exposing empty patriotic gesture and challenging citizens to live up to the emancipatory demands of true patriotism, a tradition which Colin Kaepernick and his emulators can be seen as stalwartly embracing.  His speech serves as a powerful rejoinder to those who would, like Donald J. Trump, attempt to shame NFL player-protesters into anthem-standing conformity with transparently cynical references to the sacrifices of US veterans and members of the armed forces.

M. Davout (pseudonym) is a professor of political science who teaches in the Deep South.

8 thoughts on “Frederick Douglass on Patriotism and Taking A Knee

  1. Once again I learn something from your column.
    I read the speech. This part rang a bell, as a Baby Boomer, I heard the biblical support for segregation from organized religion. I grew up a Catholic. I was to young understand the push back from parishioners about priests and nuns taking part in civil rights demonstrations.
    =======================================================================
    >> But the church of this country is not only indifferent to the wrongs of the slave, it actually takes sides with the oppressors. It has made itself the bulwark of American slavery, and the shield of American slave-hunters. Many of its most eloquent Divines. who stand as the very lights of the church, have shamelessly given the sanction of religion and the Bible to the whole slave system. They have taught that man may, properly, be a slave; that the relation of master and slave is ordained of God; that to send back an escaped bondman to his master is clearly the duty of all the followers of the Lord Jesus Christ; and this horrible blasphemy is palmed off upon the world for Christianity.

    For my part, I would say, welcome infidelity! welcome atheism! welcome anything! in preference to the gospel, as preached by those Divines! They convert the very name of religion into an engine of tyranny, and barbarous cruelty, and serve to confirm more infidels, in this age, than all the infidel writings of Thomas Paine, Voltaire, and Bolingbroke, put together, have done! These ministers make religion a cold and flinty-hearted thing, having neither principles of right action, nor bowels of compassion. <<
    ======================================================================
    Organized religion today has their thoughts and prayers, prayer vigils, candle lightnings, meditations, and other empty actions, but no action against laws that allow civilians to buy AR-15's their variants and devices that can convert semi-automatic to an automatic weapon.

    Likewise, I see no Organized Religion urging the adoption of Single Payer Healthcare for all.

    Organized Religion has remained silent as AmeriKa has brought death and destruction to the world, with it's war machines.

    Langston Hughes was another thorn in side of patriotic bombast he writes in his poem Let America be America again. https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/let-america-be-america-again/

    O, let my land be a land where Liberty
    Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
    But opportunity is real, and life is free,
    Equality is in the air we breathe.

    (There's never been equality for me,
    Nor freedom in this "homeland of the free.")

    I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
    I am the Negro bearing slavery's scars.
    I am the red man driven from the land,
    I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek–
    And finding only the same old stupid plan
    Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.
    ==================================================
    By the way – In 1953, he (Hughes) was called before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations led by Senator Joseph McCarthy. If Hughes was alive today and still writing he may not be summoned to the Senate, but our corporate media and certainly Agent Orange would attack his lack of patriotism. He would be verbally lashed for bringing up class as an engine of suppression.

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  2. The flag is the focal point of the national anthem and the pledge of allegiance, the flag being a symbol of the government which was established to safeguard our inherent human rights as found in the Declaration of Independence. When the government fails to safeguard human rights, when people are randomly assassinated by the police for example, then it is proper and natural to withhold allegiance to the government. And it is natural for members of the (offending) government to “not get it.”

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    1. I have found in my seventy-years of life experience that my fellow countrymen, by and large, misuse the word “citizen” when they actually mean “subject.” Likewise, Americans like to speak of “allegiance,” when they really mean “subservience,” or “servility.” As in, for example:

      The Boobie Pledge of Subservience
      (from Fernando Po, U.S.A., America’s post-literate retreat to Plato’s Cave)

      I offer my obedience
      I pledge undying love
      To any symbol formed to serve
      The needs of those above
      Who rightly feel that I deserve
      The fist inside the glove

      I stand and mumble publicly
      With fear upon my brow
      Lest some mistake my silence for
      An insufficient vow
      Let all who see and hear me know
      How easily I cow

      Authority need never fear
      I swear I know my place
      I pledge to take the gauntlet slapped
      Across my beaten face
      The Seizure Class knows I’ll accept
      Chastisement with good grace

      About such things as freedom, I
      Have not the slightest clue
      By birth and class it’s come to THEM
      I know that it’s THEIR due
      To hand me down instructions as
      To just what I must do

      And so I promise faithfully
      To play my scripted part
      Each day I’ll chant Two Minutes’ Hate
      To finish, from the start
      Until I love BIG BROTHER from
      The bottom of my heart

      I swear to do as I am told
      I will not think too deep
      I’ll huddle in conformity
      Just like the other sheep
      To take my whipping like a slave
      And utter not a peep

      I pledge to stand up every day
      Within my schoolroom class
      And mouth my mantras on demand
      Without backtalk or sass
      Until the program makes me a
      Compliant, docile ass

      I swear upon my loyalty
      To stuff my head with fat
      And place my nation “under” “GAWD!”
      Supinely prone and flat
      With me then going “down” “beneath”
      And “lower” “under” that

      I swear to go to Sunday School
      Upon the public dime
      Each morning in my homeroom class
      I’ll mouth my dreary rhyme
      And if I leave out words
      THEY can Indict me for my crime

      I pledge and vow and promise that
      I’ll swear from dusk to dawn
      And never fail to chant or moan;
      To never blink or yawn
      And with each cry of “GAWD IZ GRATE!”
      My own soul I will pawn

      The Papal bulls and fatwas tell
      Me all I need to know
      Which isn’t much because I see
      I’ve nowhere left to go
      I swear to never set my sails
      Against the winds that blow

      The Popes, Imams, and Rabbis tell
      Me what and where and how
      The master’s overseer tells
      Me which row I must plow;
      To toady, genuflect, and crawl;
      To grovel, scrape and bow

      I’ll train to “hurry up and wait”
      And do the Bulgar drills
      To stand at rapt attention dressed
      In military frills
      Just point me and I’ll drop the bomb
      No matter whom it kills

      I pledge and promise on my word
      To do the things I ought
      To work for lower wages
      So my labor comes to naught
      I swear to vote Republicrat
      To prove I can be bought

      The Party keeps us all at war
      Which makes us quake with fear
      And so we give up all those rights
      Our ancestors held dear
      Which saves our enemies the need
      To take them from us here

      But I won’t think of bygone days
      The past I’ll just rewrite
      I’ll call my history “old news”
      To make it pat and trite
      Which sleight of mind will help me keep
      Its lessons out of sight

      With this capitulation I
      Agree to sell my pride
      Before I even own it or
      It grows too big to slide
      Into the shabby, craven cave
      Wherein I must reside

      Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright © 2005

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      1. Super, Michael.
        My wife refuses to Pledge Allegiance Under God, a regular performance at the local Woman’s Club, and she enjoyed my reading The Boobie Pledge of Subservience.

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      2. Good for your wife, Don. I remember back in elementary school in the 1950s when the Eisenhower/Nixon administration and a “tail gunner Joe” McCarthy Congress first tried to drive religion into the public schools for political purposes — quite successfully, I must admit. Our teachers told us that we did not have to say the religious prepositional phrase if we didn’t want to and could just hold our breath and then resume the rest of the pledge later. Fast forward to 2004 and Congressman Jim McDermot of Washington State did just what our elementary school teachers taught us when his turn came to “lead” Congress in the Pledge of Subservience. The “freedom loving” Republicans in Congress went bat-shit nuts at the mortally offensive three syllables of silence. The whole wretched exercise in intimidation reminded me of Orwell’s 1984 and “facecrime,” where even an incredulous look on the face (upon hearing some piece of preposterous bullshit) would bring the Thought Police down on any poor prole who wouldn’t outwardly and vocally conform.

        You probably remember those scandalized headlines from the Deputy Dubya era, like:. McDermott omits ‘God’ from Pledge by The Washington Times (Tuesday, April 27, 2004). That sort of thing.

        I didn’t write much in the way of vitriolic verse last year, since I spent more of my time working on gargoyle sculptures. I did manage to crank out this one, though, regarding sports events as nationalistic propaganda rituals:

        Thank You for Your Servility

        The Sacred Symbol Soldier serves to shield
        The fans from what transpires upon the field
        Of battle, far away in distant lands,
        While “patriots” swill beer up in the stands,
        And cheer the gladiators down below
        Who (for a dollar) put on quite a show

        To market war as just another game
        Makes money for the ones who have no shame.
        To move the mob, they wave the bloody shirt
        Concealing blood and bowels in the dirt.
        Their crimes they seek to hide behind the troops:
        Those tools of conquerors and statesmen’s dupes

        The Taboo Troop shows up at sports events
        To bask in brief applause; no malcontents:
        Disgusted, wounded, angry, are allowed
        To give the middle finger to the crowd
        And so the wars, somewhere, go on and on
        Sold by the slave; promoted by the pawn

        Michael Murry,”The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright © 2017

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  3. (1) I would caution the author of this article that Special Persecutor Robert Mueller has just indicted thirteen non-U.S.-resident “Russians” for developing fictional identities (i.e., pseudonyms) through the use of which they allegedly posted opinions and placed advertisements on social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, etc., with the end in view of creating “chaos” (i.e., “dissatisfaction”) in the American political arena. According to long-standing imperial practice, our totalitarian corporate oligarchy/Junta (I hesitate to use the euphemism, “government”) first tramples on the rights — if not the very lives — of foreigners before “repatriating” the same abusive practices for use against American citizens resident in the “Homeland.” Just saying …

    (2) If by “Deep South” one means the collection of (geographically “southern”) American states fomerly known as “the Confederacy,” or, alternatively, as “the Bible Belt,” I would cordially object to the adjective “deep,” since “shallow” seems to me a far more accurate and appropriate characterizaiton of that region, especially in regard to political, economic, and cultural matters. In saying this, I do not mean to imply that the other regions of the United States do not equally deserve the epithet “shallow,” since not a single one of America’s 50 states voted for a political party other than the Tag-Team Two relentlessly sold to the American electorate by the same corporate conglomerate media that saturates all regions of the country with what George Owell called “spurious news and rubbishy entertainment,” or prolefeed (a Newspeak term which, in the United States today, goes by the name of “infotainment“). On the other hand, if by “deep” one means to describe the environmental and intellectual septic tank that Americans have dug for themselves and happily mistake for a swimming pool, then I would consider the adjective entirely appropriate, and again, not just when applied to the “Solid (waste) South,” as the Republicans like to call the rabidly reactionary, religiously fundamentalist heart of their party.

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  4. Chelsea Manning & Colin Kaepernick are my favourite US citizens :-). I hugely admire his integrity and courage, for which he paid such a high price. A simple gesture that does not harm anyone, yet is so eloquent. If he has any kids, they can be proud of their dad.
    One more example of silent protest being so much more impressive than shouting.

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