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Morehouse president: Colin Kaepernick sets example for students on confronting injustice

Here is an excerpt from the Opening Convocation speech of Morehouse College President John Silvanus Wilson, Jr., on the Colin Kaepernick controversy.

Morehouse provided the president's comments from his Thursday address, and I thought the remarks offered food for thought. So, I am sharing them here:

This past summer, we learned some important lessons about how distorted black male character can be. Very clearly, as young black men, your pathway to success, however you define it, may have gotten a little more complicated, simply because all over this nation and world, we were all poignantly reminded of the unique and substantial forces aligned against young black men. Crystal clear evidence of an overarching negative narrative about you -- about us.

With even a casual glance, anyone can see that, when it comes to black men, positive news stories are rare and muted. It is disproportionately negative. Our stories seem stuck on controversy and criminality. As a result, in America, if not in the world, the presumption of black male villainy is real!  We tend to be defined by our weaknesses rather than by our strengths, by our sins rather than our blessings – we tend to be defined, characterized and caricatured by our noise, rather than by our signal!

Any of you ever feel starved for positive news about young black men? I feel that way much of the time. Morehouse men are doing great work in this world and it ought to be spotlighted more. Morehouse or not, we need more positive stories about our men.

You know, every now and then, I see one brother or another do something newsworthy or remarkable, and I ask what I want everybody in here to ask – was that a Morehouse thing to do?

If he was a Morehouse man doing that, would we or should we be proud?

I asked it a few years ago when Ray Rice punched his fiancé on an elevator (NO!)

I asked it when Jesse Williams made that powerful statement on racism at the BET awards last year (YES!)

And I asked it again last month.

65 Seconds

You all know about the 65-second controversy. Just before the San Francisco 49ers started their preseason game, Colin Kaepernick sat down.

I call it the 65-second controversy, because that is the average time it takes to sing our national anthem. You all know that, based in part on this past summer of strife, Colin Kaepernick decided to sit down for those 65 seconds.

What he did provoked an outcry – he was called unpatriotic! Disgraceful! Dishonorable! You heard it. Many were as confused by it. And even when President Obama weighed in saying, it is Kaepernick’s constitutional right to sit during the anthem, many folks stayed confused, insulted or outraged.

In fact, folk seemed far more outraged by what Kaepernick did than by the outrageous injustices that provoked him to do what he did in the first place!

Was that a Morehouse thing to do?

You know, I don’t think what he did is that complicated. Really.

Very simply put, he is not standing during the National Anthem, because he does not like the fact that Walter Scott is not standing during the National Anthem, and Tamir Rice, and Sandra Bland, and Philando Castille and Freddie Gray and Alton Sterling and 102 other unarmed black folks who perished at the hands of the police in 2015 alone are not standing during the National Anthem.

And Eric Garner is neither standing nor breathing during the National Anthem!

Colin Kaepernick sat for those 65 seconds to make a wordless statement!

But you know what else?

Kaepernick is not alone and he is not the first.

Well before Colin Kaepernick, Tommie Smith and John Carlos made a wordless statement, not by sitting during the anthem when they won their Olympic medals 1968 – oh, they stood, but they also raised a gloved fist, and they lost their medals because of it.

But they made a wordless statement, too!

Before Colin Kaepernick, there was Kareem Abdul Jabbar, who sat out, not for 65 seconds, but for two weeks, when he boycotted the entire 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico to protest against American racism.

He made a wordless statement, too.

Before Colin Kaepernick, there was Muhammad Ali, a champion boxer who made the decision to sit down, not just for 65 seconds for an anthem, but for three entire years because of an unjust war!

And he made a wordless statement, too.

SO, Colin Kaepernick is in fact standing -- he is standing on the shoulders of giants!

Many of them are Morehouse giants!

As a matter of fact, let me tell you about a Morehouse way to spend those 65 seconds. Line up four Morehouse men for those 65 seconds of the NEXT anthem and do this:

ONE will sit, because we have sat-in and struggled for justice in this country;

ONE will take a knee, because we have prayed for this country;

ONE will stand with hand on heart, because we have loved this country;

And ONE will stand in a military salute, because we have defended this country!

What Kaepernick did and is doing has Morehouse written all over it because it is indeed a Morehouse tradition to draw attention to injustice!

It is a Morehouse thing because, based on how he has explained himself so far, when he sits, he is in fact standing!

You can stand by sitting!

When those black college students sat in those restaurants, they were…

When Rosa Park sat on that bus, she was…

When King sat in that jail cell, he was…

…Standing by sitting!

And that is my point about the character of Morehouse College men!


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.