‘Protesting on Bended Knee’

UND’s Eric Burin and The Digital Press release history’s ‘first draft’ of bold, controversial stance against injustice

Colin Kaepernick

On Oct. 16, UND History Professor Eric Burin and The Digital Press at UND released “Protesting on Bended Knee: Race, Dissent, and Patriotism in 21st Century America, a compilation of essays edited by Burin that dissects the bold yet controversial demonstrations championed by former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, a onetime star signal caller for the San Francisco 49ers. Image courtesy of the NFL.

Oct. 16 of this week was a noteworthy day for Eric Burin, history professor at the University of North Dakota.

It marked the 50th anniversary of American sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s now emblematic gesture – fists in the air, clenched in a Black Power salute – at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.

The day also ushered the debut of Protesting on Bended Knee: Race, Dissent, and Patriotism in 21st Century America, a compilation of essays edited by Burin that dissects the controversial demonstrations championed by former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, a onetime star signal caller for the San Francisco 49ers.

The Digital Press at UND carries the book, which is available as a low-cost paperback as well as a free digital edition.

“Like the publication date, the section headings, artwork and even fonts have historical significance,” Burin said.

Eric Burin

Since the release of his book, Burin, a professor of history at UND, already has had conversations with The New York Times Pulitzer Prize Winning journalist John Branch, as well as ESPN’s The Undefeated, about it. UND archival photo.

The historic references that pack the pages situate Kaepernick’s contested deed – kneeling during the national anthem prior to NFL games in 2016 – in the large, decades-old quest for “a more perfect union.”

Despite the controversy of the protests, which are both fervently heralded and fiercely condemned, Burin and the 31 essay authors espouse a multidisciplinary, intersectional approach to the matter.

They prod the various motifs that delineate Kaepernick’s genuflection – from the significance of The Star-Spangled Banner to legal implications to athlete activism to protest tactics and counter-actions.

Burin calls the literary outcome a “first draft of history.” But in the present, Protesting on Bended Knee is much more. It is a broad, meditative colloquy on justice, power, politics, race and fame among other threads that twist the fabric of society.

Bill Caraher, the publisher of The Digital Press, described the book – and especially Burin’s 86-page introduction – as the “definitive work on Kaepernick and the protests at present.”
Colin Kaepernick

John Carlos and Tommie Smith in Mexico City 1968

The release of Burin’s digital work, this week, coincided with the 50th anniversary of American sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s now emblematic gesture – fists in the air, clenched in a Black Power salute – at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. (Above) Colin Kaepernick raises his fists to the sky in 2016 in an apparent gesture of protest against alleged police brutality against minorities.

Since the release of the book, Burin already has had conversations with New York Times Pulitzer Prize Winning journalist John Branch, as well as ESPN’s The Undefeated, about it. More interviews are sure to follow.

A day after the release of Protesting on Bended Knee, which took about a year to assemble, UND Today talked to Burin about the importance and impact of his work.

The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and space.

What spurred your interest in this topic?

I teach African-American history, so one of the things that I thought I could bring to the project was a bifocal perspective. There are a lot of things going on right now with that story but I can always situate what is going on now against the past. I also asked all kinds of different people to write short essays on the subject. Not only scholars – political scientists and philosophers – but also attorneys and coaches and national anthem singers and athletes. So, everyone had a seat at the table and everyone can offer their insights on what was going on. 

You open the book with a short summary of Nike’s ‘Just Do It’ campaign that features Kaepernick, which in itself is controversial. What is the place of the ad in the Kaepernick story?

Because we are a small nimble digital press, we could incorporate that story into our book even as we were going to press. Whereas a large traditional publishing house does not have that flexibility and speed. If nothing else, for me it was exciting to be able to write almost right to the moment and then to incorporate that into the book. That is a distinctive feature that we have at The Digital Press. 

As for the Nike decision itself or, from another perspective, Kaepernick’s decision to work with Nike – you can have many essays just on that. One of Kaepernick defenders argued that Nike tends to be a fairly conservative organization. Nike has suspect labor practices. But on the other hand, according to his defender, if anyone has earned the right of going into that “snake pit,” that is the word he used, that is Colin Kaepernick. 

You write about a new era of athlete activism. What are the roots and manifestations of that new era?

It goes back decades with athletes using their platform to speak about non-sports issues. Kaepernick does not show up in the introduction that I wrote until a third of the way through, because I am trying to establish this backstory that he does not come out of nowhere.

What I think is interesting is that Kaepernick gets a lot of attention and for good reason but he is not alone. One of the points that I make is that the Fellowship of Christian Athletes has made extensive inroads into the nation’s locker rooms and they usually do not speak about things that are overtly political or partisan. They are using their athletic fame to do what they consider sports ministry. Many of the people who also support Kaepernick or demonstrate in some way are also devout Christians. So, sometimes, just a difference in opinions is what it means to do the Lord’s work.

As a historian, how do you view Kaepernick amid backdrop of historic protests?

Needless to say, a lot of people have very different perspectives on him now and as a historian I am more accustomed to thinking about the past. It will be interesting to see what his reputation will be as time progresses. One of the points I make in the book is that despite the enormous backlash against him, historically speaking, he actually probably has more support than most black activists have had. At the time, Martin Luther King Jr. did not enjoy a lot of support among white people. Decades pass and views change. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, John Lewis were all seen as divisive, agitators, out of their place, unpatriotic, ungrateful. Those terms have been used about Kaepernick but he actually has more support than King did in his day. 

The question is how he will be seen five years, 10 years, 50 years down the road. Nobody knows but history suggests that a lot of his radicalism will be smoothed over. He will be divested of his bold stance and he will be sort of whitewashed to something more acceptable for subsequent generations. 

You contend that Kaepernick is more accepted than political activists of the past – what does that say about society? 

One of the odd twists of the story is that it became a very partisan issue and the NFL became very partisan. There is research to suggest that partisanship today is becoming so rigid that it becomes individuals’ primary identity. It is so strong in fact that there is evidence to suggest that it is changing their other identities. For example, individuals who previously did not identify as Evangelical, if they are Republican, may come to see themselves as Evangelical. The same is true about Democrats. People become Democrats and maybe they have not identified as Latino before but that new Democratic identity shapes their racial identity. The profound influence of partisanship may explain why he probably has more support today than say Martin Luther King Jr. did in his day. 

Kaepernick’s protest against police brutality and an unjust criminal system has moved to perceived irreverence toward the flag and national anthem. How did the conversation shift?   

I think the protests were about the anthem and the flag because Kaepernick and others were trying to use these potent symbols of America to make a point. That was a means to get to another issue, which was in their minds police brutality or criminal justice reform or whatever the case might be. Yet, it became so much about the flag and the anthem that it frustrated those who said, “No, we are merely using this as a metaphor or as a symbol to draw attention to the gap between the values that this flag represents and the reality of American life.” 

It is not entirely surprising that this message would be hijacked by those who were opposed to the real point of the protest and focus more on the flag and anthem. And this gets you to all kind of weird places like whether we are inconsistent in our approach to these matters. I have never seen anyone stand up for the anthem while watching the game at home or watching the game at a bar, for instance. 

You study and teach slavery and racism. Do you think we’ll ever eliminate race as a source of prejudice?

I think we have to try. What are the other options? I think in some ways we make progress and in some ways revolutions go backwards. I think it is important to understand that many of the protesters today grew up in an era when a lot of the achievements of the civil rights era have been rolled back in terms of educational and residential segregation, in terms of voting rights. I think that America tends to have this belief that progress is inevitable. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, the moral arch of the universe bends toward justice. But King also said time is neutral. The real question is who uses time most effectively – those who are advocating for progress or those who are not. 

The book is available online? Why did you decide to make it free for anyone to download? 

I think it is important to show the value of the public humanities and that historians have something worthwhile to contribute. This is a book where there are a lot of different perspectives and it provides some type of a common ground for discussing really important topic. Frankly, there was never any discussion about whether or not we make it available for free.

Talk about the significance of Protesting on Bended Knee as a work created in North Dakota. 

If nothing else, it shows that really important work can be done anywhere. A number of the authors are North Dakotans. The book was published in North Dakota. Even here in the Northern Great Plains we are doing really good and important work that can have a national and even international effect. In some ways I am particularly proud that we are from North Dakota and we are making the first draft of history. It is such an awesome thrill and responsibility to have the first say. That came out of North Dakota.