The National Museum of African American History and Culture “is the place to understand how protest and love of country don’t merely coexist, but inform each other,” President Obama told the crowd as he prepared to open the Smithsonian Institution museum to the public on Saturday. This idea played out on the grounds of the Mall during the opening ceremony itself.
When the national anthem played, a few took a knee.
The reason was written on protest signs around the Mall, referencing the San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protests during the pregame national anthems.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick said to explain why he kneels. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
Kaepernick said this about a month ago. Since then, other athletes have joined in, either kneeling or raising fists during the anthem to draw attention to the treatment of minorities in America.
The silent act of protest has been divisive. Nearly half of Americans disagree with it, according to one recent poll. Meanwhile, sales of Kaepernick’s jersey took off after the protest became a national story. Donald Trump said he felt that Kaepernick’s protest is “terrible” and that “maybe he should find a country that works better for him, let him try, it won’t happen.” The football player said in response that “there’s a lot of racism in this country disguised as patriotism.”
Obama, who has defended Kaepernick’s right to protest in this way, did not directly refer to his protest during the speech. But one of the clear take-aways of his remarks was that visible displays of protest against the ways that African Americans are treated are not mutually exclusive with loving your country.
“Men can proudly win the gold for their country but still insist on raising a black-gloved fist,” Obama said. And repeating the last words of Eric Garner: “We can wear an ‘I can’t breathe’ T-shirt and still grieve for fallen police officers.”
Athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who raised fists in a Black Power salute during the 1968 Olympics, are honored in the new museum. A sculpture of that protest is in the museum, as is Smith’s warm-up suit from those Games.