This is a cross post in partnership with the U.S. Intellectual History Blog. It will appear there on Wednesday.
By Robert Fitzgerald, Guest Contributor
At a recent rally in Huntsville, Alabama while stumping for Luther Strange, a Republican candidate for the Senate, President Trump said something that should concern everyone who cares about what it means to be an American. Referring to NFL players who refuse to stand during the Pledge of Allegiance and show any other form of disrespect toward the flag as “sons of bitches” who should be fired by their respective owners, the President, likely without knowing, articulated an ideal about how Americans should act in relation to our nation, its symbols, and inherently with its leadership and their decisions. In simplistic terms, the President’s notion about what it means to be patriotic is to accept without question or any public and peaceful display of disapproval. This is not only sad but also frightening in terms of its suggestion that “disrespect” should be met with punitive action by those in positions of power and authority.
The President’s suggestion, as well as the applause which met it from the exuberant crowd in attendance, should concern anyone who has taken even a second of their time to read and think critically about the principles that underpin this country and their application throughout our history. What the President apparently does not understand, which is tragic considering the oath he has taken, is that public displays of disaffection are not only allowed under our Constitution, they are encouraged by it as well as by the Declaration of Independence. Clearly not a student of history, the President is also unaware of the fact that individuals who engage in such action, although often vilified at the time of their doing so, are exalted in retrospect by the very same people who ridiculed them as well as by the public at large. One such person, to whose story the President ought to look to for help in reconsidering his ideal at this critical time in our history, is Muhammad Ali.
It is slightly ironic that the President’s recent comments were made on the eve of the Muhammad Ali Center’s Annual Humanitarian Awards Ceremony, a celebration of Ali’s life and the principles he stood for. It was fifty years ago this past April when he refused Army induction in opposition to the Vietnam War as a conscientious objector. Charged and convicted for draft evasion, he was sentenced to five years in prison, fined $10,000, and banned from professional boxing for three years. Although he never served any of the time and had the ruling overturned in 1971 by the Supreme Court, the Greatest of All Time who had shook up the world just a few years early with his defeat of Sonny Liston was labeled by many as the epitome of un-Americanism. “He’s a disgrace to his country, his race, and what he laughingly describes as his profession,” pined television personality David Susskind in language eerily similar to the President’s.
Coupled with his conversion to Islam and the change in names that accompanied it, Ali’s refusal to fight in Vietnam made him persona non grata in America at a moment in his career when he should have been in his prime. Stripped of his heavyweight title by the World Boxing Association and denied the opportunity to work as a professional boxer, he was essentially fired, as the President suggests should be done today to any athlete who displays disapproval of his ideal of what being American means. And while Ali would eventually return to the ring, winning the heavyweight title back two more times, the damage done was in many ways irreparable.
It would take a reflective country, reconsidering its involvement in Vietnam, and a neurodegenerative brain disorder to get Americans thinking once again about his greatness, not only as a boxer, but more importantly as a human being. His passing a little more than a year ago reconfirmed his eminence as people across the world came together to mourn, share, celebrate, and reflect on his legacy. What most said at that time and continue to iterate is that although he was great in the ring, it was his actions out of it that truly make him the greatest ever. As former Attorney General Eric Holder tweeted on the day of his passing, “His biggest win came not in the ring but in our courts in his fight for his beliefs.”
Ali, like many of the NFL players who came together this past weekend in solidarity with each other in a peaceful and public display of disapproval, was vilified for being patriotic. His patriotism, like theirs, was not of the kind suggested by the President in his recent speech that can best be described as allegiance without critical inquiry, acceptance without doubt or consideration of alternative points of view. Rather, Ali’s and the players’ actions were patriotic in the style articulated by Senator J. William Fulbright who in 1966, while Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, spoke out against America’s increased involvement in Vietnam. Senator Fulbright’s style, articulated in a lecture he gave called “Higher Patriotism” at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, connects to the principles outlined in the Constitution and Declaration rather than refuting them as the President’s does. “In a democracy,” he stated, “dissent is an act of faith.” Senator Fulbright believed that as Americans we have an obligation to hold our country and its elected leaders to a higher standard, and that to criticize it and them is to express our belief that they can and must do better. As he eloquently iterated, “Criticism, in short, is more than a right; it is an act of patriotism, a higher form of patriotism, I believe, than the familiar rituals of national adulation.”
Ali, like many of the professional athletes engaged in displays of civil disobedience this past weekend, did not disrespect America. He and they express in their actions a clear understanding of and deep-seeded affinity for its principles, what the President frustratingly appears to lack. They believe we are capable of so much more which is commendable rather than dishonorable as Trump’s recent tweets suggest. Although one doesn’t have to agree with what they say, respect for their right to say it is of paramount importance to the flourishing of democratic society. Instead of being fired, they should be praised. Instead of being vilified, they should be exalted. Instead of being booed, as many were by fans in stadiums across the country, they should be supported and encouraged by their fellow Americans who love this country as much as they do. Their conviction, one of the Six Core Principles the Muhammad Ali Center promotes as his lasting legacy, is beyond admirable. It is noble and worthy of public adulation, a true testament to the ideals of America in action.
The NFL players who responded to President Trump’s Huntsville speech should be lauded by all, including those among us opposed to what they stand in solidarity for. If history teaches anything, they will be eventually. Although none are yet at Ali’s iconic level, and none likely will ever be, they are acting out his spirit. As the Muhammad Ali Center acknowledges this year’s Humanitarian Awards recipients, let’s be sure we remember the principles underpinning them – Confidence, Conviction, Dedication, Giving, Respect, Spirituality – and more importantly recognize when these are being acted out by those around us. And as the President suggests that to be American is to blindly accept and engage in an allegiance void of any critical thought, let’s be sure to remember that a higher form of patriotism exists as well, one that says – like both Senator Fulbright and Muhammad Ali said – that we can and must do better.
Dr. Robert Fitzgerald is a faculty associate at University High School in Normal, Illinois, USA where he co-chairs the Social Science Department and serves as the Assistant Activities Director for Student Life. This past Spring he was a Fulbright Scholar/Honorary Research Fellow at University College London’s Institute of Education where he worked with the Justice to History Program on inclusive curricular strategies. Recently he has partnered with the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Kentucky and Youth Charter from Manchester, England to consider how to bring the Six Core Principles of Muhammad Ali into classrooms and schools.