“I’ve been to the moon. I’ve been burned. But more often I’m honored. I’m your American flag.”
That’s the way I introduced myself this summer to readers in 115 newspapers coast to coast — from city papers in Pittsburgh, Miami, Memphis, Charlotte, Jacksonville and Salt Lake City to mid-sized ones in Altoona, Scranton, Savannah, Tucson, Monterey and on to papers in towns so small you may not have heard of them, such as Leesville, La., Pomeroy, Ohio, and Arkansas City, Kansas.
And now I want to introduce myself to someone who seems reluctant to see me, to meet me even halfway.
His name is Colin Kaepernick.
Colin himself needs no introduction. His name is now known coast to coast and far better than people know Pomeroy, Leesville and Mount Gilead — that’s in Ohio. First of all, Colin, I’m here to support you — not what you did but your right to do it, your right to be wrong as it were. After bragging in all these newspapers about being the center of attention at all those Fourth of July parades, I centered myself with a dose of humility.
“(But) often I’m inconspicuous, standing silently in the corner of a meeting hall or classroom, though far fewer of them nowadays. Indeed, I’ve fallen from favor for some incensed by actions our government takes. But I suffer in silence when abused or defiled for I represent all of our rights, including protesting and speaking our minds.”
Colin, I’ll put you down in that category of being incensed by government actions. And I will suffer in silence for your right to be incensed by what you see as an often-brutal oppression of minorities in this country — the one I represent — and not standing with others to honor me as our national anthem is played before a football game.
But, Colin, can you imagine all those kids in bombed-out buildings in Syria or the ones being used as suicide bombers or the little kids blown to bits by such a device being able to go out and play games or eat popcorn while watching a game? American kids, black and white, red and Asian or Hispanic, have freedoms and opportunities, such as growing up to become a football star like yourself, that are virtually unheard of or impossible in many parts of the globe.
In telling my story this summer — from being carried into battle at Brandywine in 1777 to surviving shock and shell at Fort McHenry in 1814 and trying to bring us back together after the Civil War — I said: “I survived mustard gas and ghastly death in European trenches in World War I and, 48 stars strong, was hoisted by six soldiers on Mount Suribachi at Iwo Jima in World War II. I’m proud to be your American flag.”
Iwo Jima, Colin. Our fighting men there were actually Marines and Navy sailors — and one of them was killed or wounded every two minutes for 36 days. Almost 7,000 were killed to keep us free — free to play games, protest, make a living, have families, go to church.
And that iconic photo of the six men raising our American flag on that tiny but blood-soaked island in the Pacific? Turns out that one of the six has been misidentified all these years, Marine Pfc. Harold Schultz not getting the credit due him for 71 years.
Schultz didn’t get the glory, but a North Carolina journalist, Barry Fetzer, noted that “the flag raising wasn’t — and isn’t — about individuality. Even Schultz apparently didn’t care he was unheralded, understanding that he was a bit part (like all of us) in a bigger plan.” Think of that, Colin — raising the flag was a team effort. Taking Iwo Jima was a team effort. Winning WWII was a team effort. And some of them didn’t come home.
After telling of all the things I represent, Colin, here’s how I ended my story.
“But most of all I represent the American spirit, the indomitable demand and yearning for freedom, excellence and opportunity. I am not the flag of a ruling regime or royal family. I am the American flag, representing rights emanating from a higher and transcendent authority honored on our coinage.
“Look up to me as you salute or stand at attention. Pledge yourself to fulfill lofty goals symbolized by my sky-blue field for 50 stars. With red for valor and zeal and white for hope and purity, look up and salute with pride what the patriot poet hailed as a worthy Star-Spangled Banner. May it forever wave over the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
Colin, like another great football player who ran the ball in the wrong direction in the Rose Bowl one year, “Wrong-way” Roy Riegels, you had a noble purpose in mind, but went the wrong way in pursuing your lofty goal of correcting injustices.
Yes, there are some still to be corrected. But, Colin, being Americans and seeing that freedom, excellence and opportunity is attained for all and by all is a team sport.
Be a role model and member of the team. I’ll meet you halfway.
Your American flag.
James F. Burns is a retired professor at the University of Florida.