Opinion: Starkville should be proud of the SHS volleyball team

A photo taken from the stands at a Starkville High School volleyball match at New Hope High School on Monday, showing some of the team's players taking a knee during the National Anthem. (Courtesy)

I’m just a white guy, born into a normal lower-middle class Southern family.

I don’t pretend to have, even once, been personally impacted by racism, nor can I say I fully understand what it feels like to be the victim of a system so oppressive I feel the need to personally protest it.

But I can empathize.

Just this past week, the Starkville Daily News reported about several Starkville High School volleyball players who took a knee to protest racial inequality and injustice in the U.S. before a match at New Hope High School.

The story - which I believe to have been reported objectively - ignited a firestorm of comments and discourse in the community, not only concerning the subject of the protest, but about the teenagers themselves.

A recurring argument from those who criticized the protest asserted the players who took a knee were “just kids following a trend,” or “they have no clue why they’re kneeling.”

What’s more, many opposed to the protest brought up nostalgic phrases like “back in my day,” or “when I was growing up.” So, let’s think critically about that while it has been suggested these teenagers are too immature to know what they’re doing.

The protest wasn’t aimed at disrespecting the military or the flag. Rather, it was a statement, in the words of one of the athletes, to protest social injustice - a practice fundamental to our American brand of democracy.

In 1965, 16-year-old Christopher Eckhardt, 16-year-old John F. Tinker, 13-year-old Mary Beth Tinker, 11-year-old Hope Tinker, 8-year-old Paul Tinker wore black armbands to their school in Des Moines, Iowa, to protest the Vietnam War and show support for the Christmas Truce.

The three oldest students were suspended from school for their protest, but their legal challenge was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled the First Amendment applies to public schools.

So, “back in the day,” the highest court in the land ruled high school students are citizens with the same free speech rights as their hard-headed adult counterparts.

I think it is both disparaging and irresponsible to say these students can’t think for themselves. While I somewhat concede to the argument that an adult could have put them up to it, I wonder whether that even matters. As far as I can tell, no one put a gun to the heads of these teenagers and made them protest. It’s obvious they felt compelled to do it, knowing full well the response it would generate.

I, for one, am proud of the young women on the Starkville High volleyball team for being socially conscious enough to have an opinion, which is something I think is lost in a culture where screen time is increasingly taking the place of human-to-human interaction. I’m also proud of the young women who made the choice to stand during the National Anthem and of their coach, who did not impose on the rights of her players to express themselves

Another argument says they are just imitating the protests going on at the professional level.

I think this also draws an interesting parallel to the attitudes of those who oppose the protest. Many of the same people who are critical of NFL players protesting - saying owners should kick players off the team for taking a knee - have no qualms when a player serves a two- or three-game suspension for beating their girlfriend unconscious or taking steroids.

Why is it we can forgive domestic violence or felonious crimes, but the second an athlete has an opinion about something other than sports, it becomes unwanted baggage?

I guarantee if little Johnny on the Starkville High football team gets ejected from a game for throwing a punch or has below a C average, there will be very few people in the community calling for his removal from the team.

But from the feedback I have received concerning the volleyball team’s protest, God forbid little Johnny decides to take a knee during the National Anthem because he is concerned with the state of the world around him.

Now to the issue inherent to this protest: racism.

One Facebook commenter highlighted the attitude I believe to be the foundation of arguments against the protest.

They wrote: ”Nobody living has owned any slaves & no body living was made to pick cotton.You got it better than you did have. I remember the civil rights days & they had it rough.”

So that’s what this is about? This is nowhere near the first time I have heard this argument and I’m not quite sure where it’s coming from. But I don’t have to be dark-skinned to know how it comes across.

I love the Southern rock band Drive-By Truckers. Their song about police brutality and racial violence “What It Means” highlights this attitude, with one lyric resonating in particular as it relates to this discussion.

“Barack Obama won, and you can choose where to eat, but you don’t see too many white kids laying bleeding on the street.”

While, yes, slaves were freed after the Civil War and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed into law, these progressive benchmarks over the last two centuries do not negate the injustices still facing the African-American community and other races.

Even if you make the argument to say racial violence doesn’t happen in Starkville, that doesn’t change the notion of systemic racism happening in other communities across the country. We no longer live in communal bubbles. The world and everything happening in it is documented in real time and information travels at an unprecedented speed.

Still, too many George Wallace-era personalities are shaping policy that will affect future generations, including the students who took a stand for their beliefs last week. These same policymakers are crafting legislation for a future that looks much different from what they remember as the “good old days,” before protest against the status quo changed the tone of our conversations concerning race.

Consider this: have you ever seen an African-American or foreigner in the fictional town of Mayberry on the “Andy Griffith Show?”

That’s what many of these old heads want to go back to - a white-washed society where anyone of color is pushed to the periphery, keeping their mouths shut and showing gratitude for the meager freedoms granted by the white folks who make and enforce the law.

Overall, those vitriolic few voicing opposition to the constitutionally-protected right to protest don’t want African-Americans kneeling or standing … they want them laying down.

Ryan Phillips is the editor of the Starkville Daily News. The views expressed in this column are his and do not necessarily reflect the views of the SDN and its staff.