September 27, 2017 — I woke up this morning thinking about events at Kent State University in 1970. I was 13 years old, a late Baby Boomer, a child in the sixties. (If you don’t remember, read about it here.)
My father taught high school in northeastern Indiana. Some members of the senior class wore black armbands to school in protest of the deaths of four KSU students at the hand of the National Guard. Several, maybe two or three, of these students belonged to the National Honor Society. The MHS sponsors decided members who wore the black armbands must relinquish their membership. At graduation a few weeks later, the students were not given the NHS cord, nor were their names in the commencement program as members.
My parents felt the students were wrong and should be denied NHS honors at graduation.
Our family watched the bloody horror of the Vietnam War “in living color,” since 1967 when we received a color television for Christmas. Every night on the Huntley/Brinkley news show, we saw death and destruction.
Now four students lay dead on a campus four hours away. Kent State University was similar to many Indiana universities in size and scope, and the four students who died might have been from my hometown. The KSU students did not die half a world away in combat with an enemy in a steamy jungle; they were shot during the day on an Ohio college campus.
Even at age 13, I understood what was happening. Supporting the protesters felt like we weren’t supporting our soldiers. In our town, we supported our troops. But all over the country, soldiers returned from Vietnam with no support, no recognition of their sacrifice. Soldiers who were injured mentally and physically were treated terribly by almost the entire country. Many people could not understand why we were fighting and protested on college campuses and at the White House. Remember the chant, “Hey, Hey, LBJ, how many boys did you kill today?” LBJ’s daughters Lucy and Lynda heard that chant from the White House as their husbands, and the President’s sons-in-law served in Vietnam.
The long arc of history does indeed bend toward justice, as Martin Luther King Jr. said. Today we understand that the Vietnam era was more complicated than the Allies versus the Axis Powers, good versus evil. We likely should not have been in Vietnam, and most historians espouse that view. Still, we lost 55,000 young Americans in defense of something few can explain.
The act of protest is at the foundation of our country. The Boston Tea Party was perhaps the first act of protest even before our Constitution and Bill of Rights spelled out the freedoms most of us enjoy.
Despite enormous national tragedy in Houston, Florida, USVI, and Puerto Rico, despite worries with North Korea, despite American healthcare imploding, our country debates whether members of the National Football League who knelt during the National Anthem should be fired. In my opinion, our precious flag represents the freedoms outlining in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. I could understand people being upset if it was a Marine flag, but it is not. Your idea of disrespect may be another’s idea of peaceful protest.
It is the American flag, and it stands for all of us.
It stands for those who fight today in Afghanistan in the new surge, including my second cousin.
It stands for my first cousins who have Turkish names and were called “Dirty Arabs” on a Massachusetts playground as children.
It stands for my second cousin who recently completed a four year tour of duty and now is getting a graduate degree. He wants to serve in USAID. His father told me his son has witnessed evil in the world and now seeks to do good.
It stands for my co-worker who shared she may not have children because she is afraid her children of color may be persecuted.
It stands for my sister-in-law’s father, a Japanese American, who wasn’t recognized for his service in World War II in Italy until President Obama invited him and others from his Japanese-American unit to the White House several years ago.
It stands for the 55,000 men and women killed in the Vietnam war, and the protesters who died at Kent State.
It stands for the ex-soldier and player who stood with his hand across his heart at a game Sunday and for the rest of his team in the locker room.
I believe I will see the arc of history bend toward justice in this situation. I believe that those who feel kneeling opposes the flag don’t fully understand the position started by Colin Kaepernick, a mixed-race NFL player, who also is a Christian. Justice and equality are what our soldiers fought and fight to preserve; justice and equality are what these players seek for their brothers and sisters of color. People of color are 2.5 times more likely to be shot by law enforcement than those who are white, reports the Washington Post.
Many, many years after Kent State, my family toured the monuments the weekend of my son’s college graduation in Washington D.C. My dad wanted to go to the Vietnam Memorial to find the names of three students who died in Vietnam. For a town of 1400 people, three deaths were three too many. All three of them were in Dad’s classes.
At the wall, a veteran covered with patches representing his service to our country was helpful in finding the three names. I strolled behind Dad as he touched each name etched in black marble with his left hand and wiped tears with his right hand. In 2012, he was 82 years old. He had lived through WWII, Korea, and the Vietnam War. With the perspective of a lifetime, he had softened his views on the Vietnam War. Now Dad just felt the loss.
Anyone who visits the Wall immediately feels it. Maya Lin’s beautiful wall rests in the curve of a hillside, surrounded by beautiful, sturdy hardwood trees. The simplicity of the design overwhelms the viewer with a sense of loss beyond words.
As we think of those who peacefully protest injustice and inequality, let’s open our minds and hearts to the meaning of the American flag, as a symbol of freedom for all Americans.
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