Colin Kaepernick, Meet Henry Johnson

Sergeant Henry Johnson (Photo: US Army)
You don’t have to love America’s injustices to fight for its ideals.

This weekend, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat down during the national anthem. He did so not because he was injured but because he was outraged. Our nation, you see, isn’t worth respecting so long as “there are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

To be honest, I don’t really care that much about Kaepernick’s protest. Why should anyone pay mind to what this quarterback thinks about criminal justice or the facts of any given police shooting? He’s indicting an entire nation based on his arbitrary, uninformed conclusions. The freedom our Constitution enshrines and our “Star Spangled Banner” celebrates means he can voice those conclusions. And we can give them all the consideration they deserve, which is to say: very little.

The problem is that Kaepernick does not sit alone. There exists a class of people who believe this country isn’t worth respecting — much less fighting for — so long as “injustice” endures. Their version of “patriotism” is a form of hatred. They claim to love the American idea, but they will continue to withhold that love until the idea becomes reality.

The men who truly built this country were not so double-minded. The men who built this country could love their nation even during darker times — and lay down their lives in its defense. Consider the example of Sergeant Henry Johnson.

Johnson, a black American, was born in 1897 in North Carolina, a state that as a matter of law, culture, and policy comprehensively oppressed its black citizens. He was born during what may have been the peak decade of a wave of lynchings that terrorized black communities across the South.

Like so many other African Americans facing these bleak realities, Johnson moved north to New York, where he worked multiple jobs as a chauffeur, porter, and soda mixer. On June 5, 1917, just under two months after the United States joined World War I, Johnson volunteered to fight, joining the 15th New York (Colored) Infantry Regiment.

Despite experiencing oppression that Kaepernick couldn’t imagine, Johnson enlisted to fight during his generation’s war.

He deployed to France, where he was immediately “brigaded” with French colonial troops. American general John Pershing lent Johnson’s unit to the outmanned French Army, but not without a warning — black soldiers, he told his French counterparts, “lacked a civic and professional conscience.” The French ignored him and deployed the American unit — wearing French uniforms — directly to the front line.

On the night of May 15, 1918, Johnson was on sentry duty in the Argonne Forest when a German raiding party of roughly a dozen soldiers mounted a surprise attack. Johnson was wounded but fought back ferociously, inflicting enemy casualties. In the engagement, he suffered 21 combat injuries but managed to save a fellow wounded soldier from capture by mounting a charge with his last remaining weapon, a bolo knife.

The French Army awarded him the Croix de Guerre avec Palme en Bronze — its second highest combat honor — and Theodore Roosevelt wrote that he was “one of the five bravest American soldiers in the war.”

Yet his own Army seemingly despised his sacrifice. In an era of rampant discrimination, he didn’t even receive a Purple Heart. Crippled by his many injuries, he couldn’t return to his prior employment, and he received no disability pay. He died broke and alone in 1929, decades before the first stirrings of the great civil-rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s.

In 1996, the Army began to correct its injustices, finally awarding Johnson the Purple Heart. In 2002, it posthumously awarded him the Distinguished Service Cross. In 2015, President Obama awarded him the Medal of Honor. Johnson had no living relatives, so Command Sergeant Major Louis Wilson of the New York National Guard received the award on his behalf.

More than just time separates Johnson from Kaepernick. There is a vast gulf of character. Despite experiencing oppression that Kaepernick couldn’t imagine, Johnson enlisted to fight during his generation’s war. Despite his incredible physical prowess and our enemy’s direct attack on home soil, Kaepernick has chosen to sit out his generation’s conflict. He plays football instead.

Johnson served a nation that oppressed him. Kaepernick judges a nation that has enriched him. When Johnson donned the uniform of his nation, does any rational person believe that he was affirming Jim Crow or sanctioning lynchings? Isn’t it possible that a person can love his community and his country even when they fail to live up to their founding ideals?

Our nation was built — and, indeed, transformed in all the right ways — by men such as Henry Johnson. Kaepernick and those who think like him coast on Johnson’s sacrifice. Standing for the anthem isn’t an affirmation of America’s injustices. If it is, then we should all sit, because injustice will never entirely leave this great land.

Standing, instead, represents both a sign of respect and a statement of commitment. You stand in respect for the blood of patriots, the men such as Johnson who made lives such as Kaepernick’s possible. But you also stand to pledge that you’ll take your place as a humble servant of our nation, striving to advance and embody the American idea. If that idea is worth fighting for, it’s certainly worth standing for.

Going back to the Argonne, the place of Johnson’s sacrifice, one is reminded of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s immortal words:

France was a land, England was a people, but America, having about it still that quality of the idea, was harder to utter — it was the graves at Shiloh and the tired, drawn, nervous faces of its great men, and the country boys dying in the Argonne for a phrase that was empty before their bodies withered. It was a willingness of the heart.

Sergeant Henry Johnson is buried in Section 25, Site 64 of Arlington National Cemetery. Can’t Colin Kaepernick at least stand for him?

— David French is an attorney and a staff writer at National Review.


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