Three of Arkansas’ four African-American female legislators on Friday (Nov. 4) expressed support for the six Razorback women’s basketball players who knelt during the national anthem the night before.
Before and after a rally Friday on the Capitol steps encouraging women of color to vote, Rep. Vivian Flowers, D-Pine Bluff; Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock; and Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, said the players were exercising their right to peaceably protest.
The protest against police shootings of African-Americans and other minorities occurred prior to the Razorbacks basketball game against Oklahoma Baptist. It was later supported by Coach Jimmy Dykes and Athletic Director Jeff Long, but it created a small firestorm on social media, including among some legislators.
Flowers compared the women’s actions to nonviolent protests by Dr. Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi, saying, “These kinds of actions are in line with the kinds of protests that Dr. King waged, and during that time, there were plenty of people who maybe felt that Dr. King was ungrateful. But he wasn’t ungrateful. He was a patriot, and he was a public servant and demonstrated the kind of character and contribution to this nation that now everybody holds high.”
She said the players were not showing disrespect by kneeling instead of standing.
“No one’s burning a flag; no one is spitting on anyone; no one is cursing,” she said. “People are waging silent protests to use the platform that they have to draw the attention of Americans to a wide range of issues that need to be addressed as it relates to racism, as it relates to injustice. And that’s American.”
Chesterfield said the players were exercising their First Amendment rights to freedom of expression, to peaceably assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. Referring to the author of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” she said, “Before there was a Francis Scott Key, there was a First Amendment. Before it became the national anthem, there was a First Amendment, and people bled and died for the right of young people to be able to express themselves.”
Elliott played both offense and defense at Oak Grove High School and Willisville High School at a time when female teams played with six players, three in each half court. She said the players are under no obligation to present their views in a way that meets “anybody else’s dictates.”
Asked if the players’ message might be lost in their method, Elliott said, “If it’s lost, it’s not lost just because those young women have chosen the wrong vehicle. It is perhaps lost because you’ve chosen to misinterpret their vehicle for making their voices known.”
Gov. Asa Hutchinson released a statement Friday saying, “By standing at attention when our national anthem is played, we show honor and respect to all of those who sacrificed everything to protect the freedoms we enjoy today – including the right to express our opinions. I hope to understand more fully the message these young ladies were trying to convey, but I would encourage student athletes to find ways to both respect the flag and to engage in public debate on issues they care about.”
University of Arkansas Athletic Director Jeff Long supported the action of the kneeling players, and issued this statement: “In this country, we value everyone’s right to voice their opinions and views. University campuses are places of learning and thus places where differences of opinion and varying perspectives are recognized. We respect the rights of our student-athletes and all individuals to express themselves on important issues in our nation. We will continue to encourage our student-athletes to engage in constructive conversations with their peers, coaches, support staff and administrators to raise awareness of varying backgrounds and life experiences, and to develop understanding among conflicting points of view.”
The legislators made their comments before and after a get-out-the-vote rally for women of color on the Capitol steps led by the three legislators, who along with Sen. Stephanie Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, are the only African-American females in the 135-member Legislature. Rep. Vivian Flowers said they were among 14 African-American females to serve in the Legislature historically, and that no Hispanic, Native American or Asian-Pacific females have served.
Elliott encouraged attendees to vote.
“As a person of color, I don’t ever want to put on the backs of black people, your only reason to vote is because people bled and died for you to vote. That’s a good enough reason, but there is so much more to it, and that is called ‘today,’” she said. “I always say to people, ‘I made a choice when I was 17 years old. I made a choice as an African-American 17-year-old in the South to remain in the South and to claim my South because people have already earned it, and I’m going to claim it.’”