By Courtney Suciu
One of the most iconic images in civil rights history is from the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City depicting American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos during their medal ceremony. As they respectively took the gold and bronze medals in the 100-meter dash, the two men lowered their heads and raised their gloved fists in a symbol of black unity against racism and exploitation as the U.S. national anthem played.
These days, that historic protest is frequently compared to the controversial NFL protests where African American football players take a knee during the anthem to bring awareness to ongoing racial tensions and police brutality.
However, the legacy of Smith and Carlos and their fight for Black freedom lives on not only in athletes, but in burgeoning student activists around the world who are bringing awareness to human rights issues by protesting the national anthems in their countries.
To mark the 50th anniversary of the Olympic black power salute, we will take a look at some recent anthem protests which have unfolded over the last year.
This first story isn’t exactly an anthem protest, but a protest of the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance. The incident occurred in October 2017, but the long legal battle which ensued is still winding its way through the court system and won’t likely be resolved until next spring – at the earliest.
It began when classmates at the Windfern High School in Texas stood to recite the pledge, with the exception of then-17-year-old India Landry who had opted out of the morning ritual as she had approximately 200 times before. She argues that the promise of “the liberty and justice for all,” as purported in the pledge, does not reflect the reality for many Americans.
But on this particular morning when Landry stayed seated and did not recite it, “principal Martha Strother, according to court filings, immediately took action. ‘Well, you're kicked outta here,’ she told Landry,” reported Alex Horton of the Washington Post1.
Texas law requires students to recite the pledge or get a parent’s permission if they want to be exempt. Because she didn’t have such permission, Landry was expelled. Claiming that Landry’s constitutional rights for free speech and due process have been violated, her mother filed a lawsuit against school officials.
According to Horton, Texas attorney general Ken Paxton has argued in defense of the law in a statement: “Requiring the pledge to be recited at the start of every school day has the laudable result of fostering respect for our flag and a patriotic love of our country.” Horton also noted that the attorney general’s comment is “a not-so-subtle nod to a popular Republican attack on the NFL protests echoed by President Trump — that they disrespect the U.S. flag and, by extension, U.S. troops and veterans.”
But Landry's attorney, Randall Kallinen, a civil rights lawyer and former president of the Houston ACLU chapter, agreed the NFL protests and political controversy around them is essential context for this situation. In September he told the newspaper, “Before this case, never one time did I hear of any school forcing kids to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.”
“In 1943, the Supreme Court ruled that students couldn’t be forced to say the Pledge of Allegiance,” Horton added, citing a case that involved Jehovah’s Witnesses. We’ll see if that precedent stands when Landry’s case goes to trial in April 2019.
"I think that everyone should be able to express their opinion," nine-year-old Australian student Harper Nielson said in an interview with The New York Times2. "Even if you're small, you can do big things."
Nielson, who refused to stand for the national anthem during her school assembly, has stirred debate not just Down Under, but around the world – though perhaps not as much as Australian right-wing party founder Pauline Hanson. Hanson responded to Nielson’s protest with this statement on social media: "What the hell is going on? I'm angry about this. Here we have a kid who is being brainwashed. And I tell you what, I'd give her a kick up the backside."
Nielson objects to the anthem’s suggestion that Australia is “new,” specifically the line “Australians all let us rejoice for we are young and free,” which many, including the 9-year-old, argue diminishes the history of the indigenous population who have existed for tens of thousands of years on the continent.
"I thought about what it would be like to be an Aboriginal person in that situation and I guess that helped me [decide to protest]," Nielson told Times reporters. "They might feel left out. They might feel upset. Sad."
Angry citizens on either side of this debate have taken to airing their points of view in Australian newspapers. On the “Soapbox” page of the Sunshine Coast Daily3, Scott Sawyer wrote:
The irony of the outcry over young student Harper Nielsen’s anthem boycott would almost be funny if it wasn’t so mind-blowingly hypocritical.
I had to laugh when I saw Pauline Hanson, our very own free speech warrior, our last defender of the right to expression when it is under such threat, erupting at the schoolgirl…
But one thing I struggle with is the double standards of her argument and that of other hardcore conservatives.
She cries foul about other cultures, declares Islam a threat to free speech and our right to express ourselves, yet loses her mind over a schoolgirl mounting her own peaceful protest.
That’s the problem, Pauline.
You can’t have it both ways.
If you want freedom of speech and expression it can’t just be on your terms.
If that means a schoolgirl wants to take a stand because she believes the anthem ignores our indigenous culture, then she has every right to.
It’s time to stop confusing free speech with the ability to continue to denigrate minorities without consequence.
Meanwhile, Andrew Nagle of Castle Hill made a more succinct opposing point in The Daily Telegraph:
Sitting down is becoming a habit in our courts and now in a school. More dividing of this great land and diluting of its values.
We should all learn to stand up for Australia.
The relationship between Hong Kong and mainland China has long been relatively tense – that part isn’t news. But a proposed law to Hong Kong’s constitution document that criminalizes any act that could be interpreted as an “insult to the national anthem” has made recent headlines.
At Hong Kong’s Ma On Shan campus, a policy is already in effect to punish students who disrespect the anthem. According to the South China Morning Post, “Pro-establishment lawmaker Priscilla Leung Mei-fun said she was glad to see a school setting rules to make it clear to students how to respect the national anthem. She said it was in keeping with a law against disrespecting the national anthem, which the government hopes to enact soon.”
But a group of social work students from Hong Kong College of Technology didn’t agree. In protest of this policy, two of them sat silently while the anthem played during their graduation ceremony. The ceremony immediately came to a halt and the students were told to leave. Upon their exit, about dozen others joined them in solidarity. Diplomas were not awarded to any of these students, according to the report.
The students claimed that “the Chinese government was not serving the people and that they, as social work students, should speak out.”
One student told reporters: “We don’t understand why the school rejected the social work students it trained up during the graduation ceremony just because of a national song.”
Leung commended the school’s response, however, and told newspapers, “School regulations are the best way to make students get used to respecting their own country. I appreciate the principal very much.”
Pan-democratic legislator Shiu Ka-chun, opposes the anthem legislation and said that political motivations should not prioritized over education.
It’s an issue that will likely continue to stir up controversy as the Nation Anthem Bill continues to be debated.
For further research
Learn more via the heading links below.
Smith, Tommie, et al. (2008). Silent Gesture : Autobiography of Tommie Smith.
Zirin, D., & Carlos, J. (2011). The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment That Changed the World.
Research topics related to the American Civil Rights movement, indigenous population in Australia and the relations between Hong Kong and mainland China in this comprehensive collection of diverse resources, including, oral histories, letters, government reports, books, and documentaries and more. This database includes the full content of the Human Rights Online and Revolution and Protest Online collections.
Follow these stories discussed in this blog post, and research others that are in the news. One of the largest collections of news from the U.S., Canada, Europe, Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Australia, Global Newsstream enables users to cross-search the most recent global news content – with archives that stretch back into the 1980s – from over 2,800 news sources including newspapers, newswires, news journals, transcripts, video, and digital-first content in full-text format.
Essential for understanding black history and culture, African Diaspora, 1860-Present helps scholars explore the migrations, communities and ideologies of the people of African descent who have dispersed around the world. Primary sources cover movements and ideologies including the Back to Africa movement and the Pan-African movement.
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Courtney Suciu is ProQuest’s lead blog writer. Her loves include libraries, literacy and researching extraordinary stories related to the arts and humanities. She has a Master’s Degree in English literature and a background in teaching, journalism and marketing. Follow her @QuirkySuciu