“We almost beat one guy to death to make him kiss the flag,” a patriot in Litchfield, Illinois, told a Chicago reporter in 1940.
When that vigilante beat a dissenter in the street—and when hundreds like him brutalized, terrorized, and even mutilated Jehovah’s Witnesses around the country —they were acting, they believed, with the imprimatur of the law, the Constitution, and the Supreme Court, which had ruled that the Witnesses’ religious objection to reciting the Pledge of Allegiance was invalid.
The Court and the nation learned a lesson from that episode. Lessons in tolerance, however, must be learned anew generation by generation. Not long ago, the public worked itself into an uproar when Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas, respectfully standing for the anthem in Rio, simply did not place her hands the way some people thought she should. But that was mere prologue to the outcry over San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who refused even to stand for the anthem before a game at Levi’s Stadium, and who, unlike Douglas, did so in protest.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” he said afterwards, citing recent incidents including white-supremacist protests and police shootings of African-American civilians. The patriotic denunciations of Kaepernick are available on virtually any website and inescapable on any talk-radio station. He has been vilified (and supported) by fellow athletes and by groups of veterans. The San Francisco police union weighed in. No matter what their position, people all over the nation seem deeply anxious about whether this one highly paid athlete will behave in the manner expected of him. And many will be watching Thursday night at the 49ers-Chargers game to see whether he has learned his lesson.