Two hours before dawn on a mid-April morning, a single 10-inch mortar traced a line through the dark palmetto sky and exploded above a building where 87 Americans sat surrounded by six thousand of their countrymen. The man who ordered the firing of the shot was a former superintendent of the United States Military Academy who had taken up arms against his fellow citizens with the hope of preserving a status quo that, he envisioned, would lead to a day when “the traveler in this country will look in vain for traces of either an Indian, a negro, or a buffalo.”
The war that P.G.T. Beauregard and his fellow dissidents chose to unleash on that springtime morning in 1861 would result in the deaths of roughly 600,000 men, more than half of whom were fighting for the preservation of the star spangled banner. Among those who died were an estimated 40,000 whose skin color framed their efforts as nothing less than a fight for survival.
Seven score and 16 years later, a black man in a white jersey looked out upon a football-field-sized rendering of the flag that his ancestors died fighting to defend. As he had 21 times before, the man stood at attention and raised his right arm above his head, the broad side of his clenched fist glistening in the fluorescent August dusk. Inside of that fist, there was nothing but air: no torch, no gun, no cardboard sign; on his lips were no words, be they songs of supremacy or slogans of hate.
For a couple of minutes on a pleasant summer night, Malcolm Jenkins stood in silence with his fist in the air. His face was solemn, purposeful, proud. He did not move. He did not yell. He most definitely did not launch an artillery shell.
On a Thursday afternoon in 1915, the city of New Orleans unveiled a statue depicting Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard sitting atop his horse. The local judge who delivered the oration declared, “may they worship at at his shrine, for he was one, and not the least, of that galaxy of heroic men whose glorious deeds have placed their age and the struggle in which they took part among the grandest that adorn the annals of all times.”
Fourteen months before Jenkins raised his first for the first of those 21 times, a white man walked into a black church and open fired. This was in Charleston, S.C., within walking distance of the promenades where the city’s residents once flocked to watch the 38-hour bombardment that Beuaregard’s troops unleashed on their 87 countrymen. Nine people died in that church on that night in June of 2015, cut down by a gunman hoping to ignite another civil war, this one pitting the entirety of one race against another.
On a website that featured a photo of him glaring into a camera with a confederate battle flag in his left hand and a handgun in his right, the gunman detailed the anger he felt at watching the protests that had erupted in recent years in response to a series of deaths of unarmed black Americans at the hands of their armed countrymen.
The gunman declared that he selected Charleston for the site of his massacre “because it is most historic city in my state, and at one time had the highest ratio of blacks to whites in the country. We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet. Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me.”
Six months after the Charleston church massacre, the New Orleans Historic District Landmarks Commission voted to recommend the removal of four historical monuments honoring Beauregard and three other men the men who helped start the war that killed more than half a million Americans and nearly led to the dissolution of the country. The commission decided the monuments fostered ideologies that conflicted with the letter of the law as laid out in the United States Constitution and could serve as sites for life-threatening violent demonstrations. The governor of Louisiana sought to block the removal.
Fourteen months after the Charleston Massacre, 16 months after Freddie Gray, five years after Trayvon Martin, Colin Kaepernick sat down during the playing of the national anthem.
“I have to stand up for people that are oppressed,” he said.
On May 13, 2017, four days before the city of New Orleans removed the Beauregard statue, a white supremacist led a rally in Charlottesville, Va., protesting the city’s decision to remove a statue honoring the commander of the forces who fought to dissolve the United States of America. The white supremacist named his rally “Take Back Lee Park” in reference to the city’s decision to change the name of the property from Robert E. Lee Park to Emancipation Park, in honor of the slaves whose freedom was secured by the United States’ triumph in the bloody insurrection.
Three months later, the white supremacist staged a second rally, ostensibly to protest the removal of the Lee statue. After a violent day of clashes between rally goers and counterprotesters, a car allegedly driven by a white supremacist plowed through a crowd of unarmed pedestrians, resulting in the death of a 32-year-old woman who’d spent the day protesting in support of the victims of hate.
On Thursday morning, 10 hours before the Eagles kicked off a preseason game against the Buffalo Bills, the president of the United States expressed the sadness he felt at the “removal of our beautiful statues and monuments” that had been erected in honor of men who started a war that killed 600,000 Americans in an attempt to preserve their right to enslave their black countrymen.
That evening, a few minutes before kickoff, Jenkins stepped onto the sideline, looked out upon the flag, and raised his fist. To his right, a white Charlottesville native named Chris Long placed his right hand on his heart and draped his left arm around the shoulders of his teammate.
“I understand that not everybody knows,” Jenkins said later. “I understand that ignorance is real. Even for myself, I know that there are things that white men go through that I have no idea about. This is an opportunity for me to educate the public. So I try not to get frustrated with people who do not receive my message, because everybody has their own perspective, and that’s really the whole purpose behind these demonstrations. To start those conversations and spark new ideas.”
Jenkins’ spoke in the same tone of voice in which he has delivered all of his comments in the year since he joined in solidarity with Kaepernick. Calm, thoughtful, without anger.
In the wake of his words, a question still lingered. To all of the fans, and voters, and politicians who feel their heart swell with anger at the sight of his fist in the air: what, exactly, are you angry about?