The Old South, Charlottesville and the kneelers

Published 12:57 pm Saturday, October 14, 2017

by John Railey

It seems almost quaint now. Fifteen years ago this December, Trent Lott of Mississippi resigned his post as the Senate Republican leader after widespread criticism of his verbal salute to the early efforts of Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, then a Dixiecrat Democrat, to keep our South segregated.

I doubt Lott would be forced to step down today. He might even be celebrated by some factions in this brokenhearted nation.

Look no further than the White House for evidence of that. President Trump weakly drew a moral equivalency between the Klan/Nazi protesters in Charlottesville in August and their counter-protesters, even after one of the white supremacists drove a car into a crowd of the counter-protesters, killing one of them, a young white woman.

Last weekend, the white supremacists crept back into Charlottesville for another torchlight rally, albeit, thankfully, with a much smaller crowd for a much shorter time. Trump said nothing about it. He was too busy tweeting about what he obviously considers a real insult, that of NFL players peacefully kneeling in protest during the national anthem. The kneelers protesting racism and police brutality are predominantly African-American.

There’s a direct line from the Old South and Charlottesville to those kneelers, a line not lost on one player who kneeled last Sunday, Eric Reid of the San Francisco 49ers. He told the Mercury News of San Jose, speaking of the August Klan rally, that “fast forward to Charlottesville and people see what an un-American protest really looks like.”

By the time Reid said those words after his team played the Indianapolis Colts on the Colts’ turf last Sunday, Vice President Pence, on orders from Trump, had long since marched out of the stadium with his costly entourage, leaving in protest as Reid and other members of his team took a knee during the anthem, before the game started.

Reid, a black man who comes from a military family, told the California newspaper that he loves the national anthem and the military. He indicated that Pence’s action was part of “systemic oppression that has been rampant in this country for decades on top of decades” to which the kneeling has sought to draw attention. Pence, he said, is “a powerful man — has a huge following, has a huge platform, and this is what he chooses to do: Fly in on taxpayer money to confuse the message that we’ve been working so hard to control the narrative on?”

“It’s really disheartening when everything that you were raised on, everything I was raised on, was to be the best person I could be — to help people that need help — and the vice president of the United States is trying to confuse the message that we’re trying to put out there.”

Reid, who was in on the beginning of the kneeling protest with former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick last year to draw attention to oppression and the deaths of blacks by police, made a good case. After standing for the anthem for this year’s first two preseason games, the Mercury News reported, Reid took a knee after the death of the counter-protester at the white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville.

“What I was upset about was the false narrative being told about us,” he told the California paper. “People were saying that we’re un-American, that we were against police entirely. And that just wasn’t true … What Colin and Eli Harold and I did was peaceful protest fueled by faith in God to help make our country a better place. And I feel like I need to regain control of that narrative and not let people say what we’re doing is un-American. Because it’s not. It’s completely American.”

This week, NFL team owners, under pressure from Trump, will meet and decide whether to ban the kneeling. They could bench players who kneel, fine them heavily or even oust them if they persist.

Our country has never reconciled its original sin, that of slavery, and the oppression in its wake. The pendulum of racial equality swings back and forth. It seems now, after years of advances, that it’s swinging back to a bad place.

But there’s always reason for hope. The vast majority of the kneelers aren’t spoiled brats, as some critics have wrongly labeled them, but African-Americans from modest roots, who, through their talent and blood, have worked themselves up to a place to be heard.

As of last week, Eric Reid, in his comments to the Mercury News, was sticking by the protests. “We’re doing it because we want equality for everybody. We want our country to be a better place.”

JOHN RAILEY, who grew up in Courtland, is the editorial page editor of the Winston-Salem Journal, which first published this column. He can be reached at