Colin Kaepernick and Black Civil Religion: American Football and “Our” Patriotisms

By: Nichole R. Phillips

December 18, 2020

Responding to: Black Faith and National Healing after the 2020 Election

Colin Kaepernick and Black Civil Religion: American Football and “Our” Patriotisms

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Internet memes of Colin Kaepernick kneeling on the sidelines of football games during the U.S. national anthem and before NFL games once again went viral. So did memes of Lady Liberty’s neck being crushed by the commander-in-chief and current occupant of the White House. To some, known as #45.

Many segments of American society were kneeling, as were people from around the globe—from health care professionals to National Guardsmen, from teachers to lawyers, from parents to children. Coalitions of Americans—black, white, other races and ethnicities—were protesting a U.S. system of racial injustice and inequality that historically delivers a crushing weight to the necks of black people. 

This transracial and intergenerational, multicoalitional and domestic-turned-worldwide solidaristic stance propelled “We the People” to the forefront of the Republic, thus transcending historic racial and social, economic and political divides centered around the value of U.S. black lives. 

This transracial and intergenerational, multicoalitional and domestic-turned-worldwide solidaristic stance propelled “We the People” to the forefront of the Republic.

For that period, Kaepernick’s once derogatory form of protest transformed into struggles for the soul of the nation—not only putting on display diverse and alternative forms of our patriotisms but also demonstrating that our patriotisms hold the potential to heal our nation’s racial, gender, as well as social, economic, and legislative fissures. 

America’s unjust systems attempt to strangle life out of the black community by disregarding its cries of suffering, pleas to alleviate the pain, and entreaties to curb state violence against black bodies—not just in police aggression and brutality but also in housing, employment, criminal justice, education, health care, and voting. 

The meme of Colin Kaepernick kneeling on the ground during the national anthem resurfaced to become the protest’s “new symbol” urging regard for black lives, the need for racial and social justice, and rectification of America’s wrongs towards this segment of the population—even though the #BlackLivesMatter social and political movement did not start with Kaepernick. Originating the movement were three black women: Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi. 

The movement began with a hashtag and a call to action.

Like the imposing black power fist meme that had also once again gone viral, Kaepernick’s kneeling strikes at the heart of the democratic project, a project elevated by fans of America’s favorite pastime: football. Recently, the NFL reversed course on his protest by acknowledging that black lives do matter. 

The celebration of civic holidays and even American football tell us about our patriotism or as some might call it—our American civil religion, represented by the symbols, rituals, myths, and rhetoric of a public faith; celebrated by Americans of all races, nationalities, religions, and creeds; and commemorating the service and sacrifices of everyday citizens, soldiers, and leaders. This American civil religion is upheld by political and sacred documents like the Constitution and Bill of Rights and even highlighted on our coinage with its enduring message, In God We Trust

The celebration of civic holidays and even American football tell us about our patriotism or as some might call it—our American civil religion.

Kaepernick’s actions remain controversial, especially around the question of his patriotism. His social protest of racial injustice, prejudice, and police brutality against blacks and other racial and ethnic minorities had him kneeling during the American national anthem at football games. 

However, his is not the first form of black protest to use the sports arena as a global stage to underscore America’s social infractions against blacks and to demand redress during a sacred and national moment in time. In fact, the 1968 Olympics is seared into U.S. social memory because two African American athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, raised black-gloved fists during the medal ceremony and the Star Spangled Banner.

Like those black sports figures before him, Kaepernick acted patriotically. His kneeling during the national anthem was how he wore his Americanness: a birthright claim to citizenship and part of the politics of social belonging to this nation. His demonstrable acts of patriotism are indicative of a black tradition of American civil religion, stemming from the American jeremiad

Like those black sports figures before him, Kaepernick acted patriotically. His kneeling during the national anthem was how he wore his Americanness.

America’s broken covenant is what drove Colin Kaepernick to kneel and what has motivated those before him—from Ida B. Wells-Barnett to Shirley Chisholm, from Malcolm X to the Reverend Dr. Jeremiah Wright, Jr., and other black leaders and luminaries—to draw upon the rhetorical and political device, the American jeremiad

The American jeremiad is the language of a black civil religion, elevated by the moral heft of an American civil religion. One of the earliest practitioners of a black civil religious tradition was statesman and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who delivered on July 4, 1852 the speech, “The Meaning of the Fourth of July for the Negro.” His jeremiad wrestled with the hypocrisy of holding Fourth of July celebrations of independence when a segment of the American population was enslaved. His remarks pinpointed and lifted up the lamentations of America’s black abductees. 

Colin Kaepernick hails from a black civil religious tradition, inspired by a rugged, altruistic, fortifying, defiant yet agape love. His kneeling throughout the national anthem—an American civil religious document—brought attention to and lamented a national, political, and moral crisis facing Americans: black death. Black death is a consequence of many factors—oppression, discrimination, murder, anti-black racism, as well as the sacrifices of black and military patriots who labor to uphold, preserve, and protect the freedoms, principles, and commitments that we the people enjoy. 

Colin Kaepernick hails from a black civil religious tradition, inspired by a rugged, altruistic, fortifying, defiant yet agape love.

Beyond the professionals, even college football has caught onto Kaepernick’s response to the matter-ing of black lives. Even if “we” have not quite normalized the response, it is being recognized as a version of our patriotism—which is just as reverent as placing hands over one’s heart, to declare that all who call themselves American do belong!

In the midst of COVID-19 and after the 2020 elections, black millennials continue to lead an interracial and multigenerational movement sparked by democratic protests, recognizing a form of our patriotism—black patriotism—that makes evident the wrongful treatment, as well as the everyday sacrifices, of the black masses for the common good of all people. Black American sacrifices are unique offerings that place social justice and racial healing on the national agenda, all in an effort to promote and strengthen U.S. democracy.

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