Free agent (read: unemployed) quarterback Colin Kaepernick has been basking in free press coverage over the last several days because NFL players across America are following his example of kneeling during the National Anthem.
Although not as well known as Kaepernick, the life and death of America’s first black Medal of Honor recipient, William H. Carney, serves as a fascinating juxtaposition to the current controversy because of one important detail: Carney, a volunteer sergeant in the US Civil War, died holding the flag–making sure it didn’t touch the ground.
Carney was born a slave in Virginia two decades before the war broke out. He became a free man when he made his way up North. As someone who was truly born into captivity, Carney understood the value of liberty–and was willing to give his all in repayment for that freedom.
During the Civil War, Carney enlisted in the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry as a Sergeant. Whereas millions of men in modern America will do anything to escape military service, Carney signed up himself to give back to his country.
The valiant Union soldier’s decision led him to participate in one of the war’s most famous conflicts–the assault on Fort Wagner in Charleston, South Carolina. Carney’s actions during the battle would result in him receiving the Medal of Honor–the nation’s highest military decoration.
The carnage at the battle was brutal. Men were dying on every side of Carney. Suddenly, the color guard was fatally hit. As he fell, Carney grasped the banner from his hands and continued raising it high–a rallying emblem for his fellow soldiers.
In the middle of the fire that killed most of the Union troops engaged in the assault, Carney sustained two serious wounds–one in his arm and another in his leg. He was bleeding heavily, the life slowly draining from his body.
Miraculously, Carney survived the gruesome battle. But the bloodloss overwhelmed him. As he began to collapse on the battlefield, Carney handed “Old Glory” to another soldier–with words that will never be forgotten:
“Boys, I only did my duty; the old flag never touched the ground!”
Those words encapsulate everything our servicemen fight for, and everything people like Colin Kaepernick will never understand. Carney put himself in the line of fire, facing flurries of bullets in order to protect a piece of red, white, and blue cloth. Why? Because Carney understood that the flag is more than cloth.
It’s a symbol. A symbol of this great nation; of everything our country stands for, Liberty, equality, justice, republicanism. Carney had experienced the blessings of liberty. He knew the stark contrast between freedom and slavery, and thus appreciated his constitutional rights more than spoiled millionaire football players living lives of luxury.
Because of what America means, and the power of the symbol that is our flag, Carney wouldn’t even let old Glory touch the ground. If Colin Kaepernick truly understood America and how beautiful this country is, he would stand for our National Anthem.
Kaepernick isn’t motivated by a desire to help African Americans. He’s motivated by an open disdain for our nation, its history, culture, institutions. That’s why, no matter how much money he makes, he’ll never measure up to the greatness of true heroes like William Carney.