Dissent helped shape our nation’s priorities

Carolyn Dupont
Carolyn Dupont

NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand during the national anthem in protest against “police brutality and social injustice” has provoked much righteous outrage. Thoughtful critics like New York Times columnist David Brooks have tried to dissuade younger football players from following Kaepernick’s example.

Beginning with the Puritans, Brooks argues, America has embraced a “civic religion,” a creed based on the notion of equality that has “shaped efforts at reform” and “bonded Americans together.”

Commitment to this belief has moved us inexorably toward change in a positive direction, according to Brooks, and failure to transmit this creed through our rituals — like standing and singing the national anthem — will compromise our sense of solidarity at a time when we desperately need to keep in mind that “we are all in this together.”

As a professor of American history who specializes both in religious history and in the African-American experience, I find serious shortcomings in Brooks’ analysis. Most problematically, he flattens a complicated story to the point of distortion.

The American belief in “equality,” as Brooks portrays it, did not emerge full-formed from the forehead of the Puritan divines. To the extent that the Revolutionary generation embraced such an ideal, they also betrayed those beliefs in their treatment of African-Americans, Native Americans, unpropertied men, Catholics and the Irish, to name just a few.

Nor was that creed handed down wholesale generation after generation. Rather, it has been modified, transformed and refined by each generation. Today’s understandings of “all men are created equal” differ dramatically from Thomas Jefferson’s intent and meaning when he wrote those words.

Perhaps most problematically, Brooks ignores how dissenters have provoked America to live up to its highest ideals. The transformations that have brought us closer to the ideal of equality have not materialized from the ether of patriotic rituals.

Rather, reform has most often arisen from the work of critics and prophetic provocateurs — the thousands of Susan B. Anthonys, Sitting Bulls, Father John Hugheses, Frederick Douglasses and Caesar Chavezes who refused to indulge fellow citizens in the comfortable misbelief that the American creed was American reality.

In the mode of Kaepernick, these dissenters forced their countrymen to pay attention to the injustice around them. They employed radical and unsettling methods — some ran away from their masters, organized workers to march, sat-in at lunch counters or, simply, voted. Their agendas seemed radical, their methods controversial, and many people decried their lack of “patriotism.”

Even more noteworthy, America has transformed when Americans have found their real interests at stake. Creeds and beliefs are too easy to reinterpret, rationalize away or betray. But people respond immediately to their self-interests.

War, not moral suasion, ended slavery. The civil rights movement’s most effective moments came when boycotts and government requirements threatened the pocketbooks of businesses and institutions who discriminated.

It’s not beatifically singing songs in “kum-ba-yah” fashion that makes us better, but brave radicals who speak their truth and deploy power in strategic ways.

Carolyn Dupont, associate professor of history at Eastern Kentucky University, is author of “Mississippi Praying: Southern White Evangelicals and the Civil Rights Movement, 1945-1975,” (NYU Press, 2013)

At issue: Commentary by syndicated writer David Brooks, “NFL anthem protests counterproductive