Several weeks ago, while I was waiting in a Nashville airport, a young African-American man walked by wearing a military uniform. As he passed my area, an older white man, probably in his 70s, called out to him, “Hey, come here for a minute.”
I only mention the race of the people involved because of what will be mentioned later in this column.
The young soldier looked startled at first, but walked over. The older man leaned over and asked him if he was indeed in the U.S. military. The young man said yes and said where he is stationed. The older man offered his hand and said, “I just want to say thank you for what you are doing.”
He told the young man he had a son and a grandson who were in the military and that he was proud of them. The old man’s wife also chimed in about her respect for him, too.
The soldier thanked them with a smile and walked away with a quizzical look on his face.
This could not be real. I was looking for a camera crew. This had to be a commercial. But after taking in what I had witnessed, I felt really good about it.
About 15 minutes later about 30 young soldiers, fresh off a plane, entered the lobby area where I was. An airline attendant stepped to a microphone and said, “Let’s salute the young men and women of our armed forces.”
We all stood and applauded them. Then, when I sat down, I had a flashback to another time.
Almost 40 years ago, I and a number of my high school classmates did not stand during the playing of the National Anthem at a playoff basketball game. We were booed by part of the crowd. This was during the era of the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, the assassinations of African-American leaders and rampant police brutality in the black neighborhoods.
At the time, we felt we were showing our anger at a political system and law enforcement community that had trampled the rights of our parents, their parents and us, too. This was a way to show rebellion against a system stacked against and on top of us. Heck, my dad was a five-year military — in battle — veteran who was denied service at a restaurant right in front of me.
When I saw this display of affection for the young soldier and other soldiers who are risking everything for people they don’t know, I thought: Were I and my friends being disrespectful to these young folks and those young men who fought back during my youth?
After deep thought I was in a mental quagmire. I feel strongly that our moment of essentially sitting to stand up for a cause was all we had at the time.
While it made some folks angry at the game, it did cause some people to ask why we were doing it, and dialogue began. Mission accomplished.
I stand up all the time now when the National Anthem is played. I stand because I like what the old man did to recognize a young soldier he doesn’t know. And I stand because I got a lump in my throat when I saw the baby-faced soldiers striding into the airport, knowing that they have parents like me who probably are proud and afraid for them every single day. I feel for them.
But am I ashamed of what I did back in 1972?
Given the cruelty, injustice and brutality at the time, I guess I would have to say “no.”
Edward Pratt, a former Advocate editor, is assistant to the chancellor for media relations at Southern University. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.