The Power to Protest – and Speak Out

By TJ Harper, Associate for Racial Justice for the Massachusetts Conference, United Church of Christ.

Follow justice and justice alone, so that you may live and possess the land the LORD your God is giving you. ~ Deuteronomy 16:20

In 1852, Frederick Douglass was invited to deliver an address at Corinthian Hall in Rochester, New York. Douglass was asked to speak about the “celebration of America’s independence” from Great Britain. However, as many of you know, Douglass went on to deliver one of his most famous speeches, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”  Although Douglass had been invited to talk about the freedom of white Americans, he could not do so with a clear conscience; he felt the need to illustrate the hypocrisy of this event, as those people who were enslaved were not celebrating Independence Day. Several months ago, it was said that Frederick Douglass is “an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more.” One of the things that Douglass has been, and will always be, recognized for is taking a courageous action where others would not; he was not afraid to use the platform he was given to unequivocally condemn oppression and injustice.

The LORD loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of God’s unfailing love. ~ Psalm 33:5

On September 1, 2016, Colin Kaepernick, former NFL quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, kneeled during the National Anthem of a football game for the first time, which caused national frustration and curiosity.  During the postgame interview in 2016, Kaepernick explained why he kneeled: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag or a country that oppresses black people and people of color. 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 [until the American flag] represents what it’s supposed to represent.” He felt so strongly about the inequitable treatment of people of color that Kaepernick decided to kneel during the National Anthem of each football game in the 2016 season.  Once Kaepernick explained his reasons for kneeling, some people viewed his actions as courageous, while others questioned his patriotism. It is challenging for me, however, to not view Kaepernick’s actions in a similar light to the actions of Frederick Douglass. Kaepernick exercised his constitutional First Amendment right to protest what he believes is wrong.

This is what the Lord Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another.’ ~ Zechariah 7:9 

Kaepernick decided not to renew his contract with the San Francisco 49ers, and instead seek new employment offers as a free agent. However, since March 2017 when Kaepernick left the 49ers, he has not been able to secure employment with another NFL team. Some people thought that since Kaepernick was temporarily unemployed his platform for protest would be destroyed, but that was not the case.  Instead, dozens of other NFL players have knelt during the National Anthem in solidarity with Kaepernick for the past several months. Then recently, incendiary remarks were made at a rally in the South that posed a question to the audience: “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a b**ch off the field, right now, he’s fired?’” As a person of color, this rhetoric is disheartening to me at a time in our country when white nationalists and white supremacists and Neo-Nazis are praised as “fine people” and defended by the notion that “there was violence on many, many sides” (including the counter-protesters in Charlottesville, VA). However, people of color who are peacefully protesting by taking a knee during the National Anthem get disrespected.

Blessed are those who act justly, who always do what is right. ~ Psalm 106:3

There are things that people of color cannot say, due to fear of possible ramifications. There are places where people of color cannot go, due to fear that their physical safety will be jeopardized. Sometimes when a person of color gets a platform to protest, it is diminished or taken away. As people of faith, we have power to speak out and stand in solidarity with people of color who are being oppressed. We are reminded that our neighbor does not need to look a certain way or have a certain zip code or maintain a certain set of beliefs. We are called to do justice – for all.

God has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God ~ Micah 6:8

TJ Harper is Associate for Racial Justice Ministries for the Massachusetts and Connecticut Conferences.