On Friday night at a rally in Huntsville, Alabama, President Trump called on NFL owners to fire players who chose to kneel in protest during the national anthem. Trump wished that owners would instruct their employees to “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, he’s fired. He’s fired.” On Saturday, he doubled down suggesting if players wanted the “privilege of making millions of dollars… he or she should not be allowed to disrespect our Great American Flag (or country).” Trump’s demand that the league’s primarily white owners (31 of 32 NFL owners are white) fire their primarily African-American employees (about 70% of the players are black) for expressing their political beliefs is deeply troubling for a myriad of reasons. It also highlights an important historical trend. A majority of white Americans have consistently opposed protests that highlight racial inequality.
White Americans in the North and South violently opposed the abolitionist movement in the decades prior to the American Civil War. Following the foundation of the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833, the American abolitionist movement became a force in American political life. The AASS and its subsidiaries organized anti-slavery conventions, created and distributed abolitionist newspapers, and flooded the South with anti-slavery literature. In response, whites in the North and South responded with a flurry of violence. Mobs attacked William Lloyd Garrison, the editor of the Liberator, in Boston in 1835. Frederick Douglass repeatedly dodged the wrath of angry white mobs. Residents of Alton, Illinois murdered newspaper editor Elijah Lovejoy at this printing press in 1837. Spurred by rumors of a mixed-race wedding and abolitionist meeting, Philadelphians burned down the newly constructed Pennsylvania Hall in 1838. Violence and hatred towards African-Americans and those seeking their freedom throughout and after the Civil War. Organizations like the KKK attacked African-Americans and whites who challenged white supremacy in the post-emancipation South.
The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s faced similar white opposition. Southern whites blocked the entrances to Southern schools to deny admittance to African-Americans. White supremacists firebombed an Alabama church in 1963 that killed four African-American girls. In the realm of public opinion, a majority of Americans disapproved of the actions of African-Americans. Sixty-one percent of Americans disapproved of the actions of the Freedom Riders. Fifty-seven percent of Americans felt that sit-ins and other demonstrates hurt African-American efforts for civil rights. And most strikingly of all, in October 1966, 85% of white Americans believed that the Civil Rights Movement had hurt the advancement of African-American rights in the United States.
Responses to the national anthem protests, begun last year by Colin Kaepernick, have broken down along similar lines. A Quinnipiac poll taken in October 2016 found that only 38% of Americans approved of athletes refusing to stand for the national anthem. Thirty percent of whites and 74% of African-Americans supported Kaepernick’s protests. According Mike Freeman of Bleacher Report, one front office executive said of Kaepernick, “I don’t want him anywhere near my team. He’s a traitor.” In light of President Trump’s comments, record numbers of players took a knee on Sunday, prompting a backlash. Trump has attempted to mobilize his Twitter supporters and a pro-Trump PAC is preparing ads calling on Americans to boycott the NFL. Denver Broncos defensive end Derek Wolfe declared that the protests were disrespectful and stated that America is “[t]he greatest country in the world and if you don’t think we are the greatest country in the world and you reside here, then why do you stay? A lot worse places in the world to call home.” After 17 New England Patriots players took a knee on Sunday, former Patriots offensive lineman Matt Light declared, “As a guy that’s been there and helped set up the Patriot Way so they can walk in there and do what they do, it’s beyond disheartening. It’s the first time I’ve ever been ashamed to be a Patriot. And I promise you I’m not the only one.”
In the decades since the Civil Rights Movement, Americans have largely changed their minds on civil rights. There is a holiday dedicated to Martin Luther King. Nearly every American school child learns of the courage of Rosa Park in refusing to give up her seat on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Although those stories often cite Parks’ as being tired for refusing to yield her seat, when in fact she was a trained NAACP activist who was engaging in a deliberate and planned protest. The recent movie Selma dramatically reenacted the Bloody Sunday march from March 1965 when civil rights activists marched across the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma to protest the state’s continued disenfranchisement of African-Americans. The newly opened National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington D.C. has brought the stories and resistance of everyday African-Americans to the American public.
While white Americans may not be supportive of the anthem protests now, if history is any guide, they may change their minds.