M65 sprinter Damien Leake: Why I’ve sat for anthem since 1968

Damien leads Striders teammate Robert Richardson in a 200-meter dash.

Joe Ruggless wasn’t the only masters trackster debating President Trump’s denunciation of NFL “SOBs” for not standing during the national anthem. Also posting on Facebook was his clubmate and relay teammate Damien Leake, a fellow Strider and national sprint champion. When I saw Damien’s post, which indicated he has been sitting for the anthem since April 4, 1968, I asked for details — assuming his protest was related to Harry Edwards and his Olympic Project for Human Rights (which led to Tommie Smith and John Carlos and their gloved fist salute at Mexico City). But Damien was 15, attending the New York High School of Performing Arts. Not Olympic-class. His motivations were grief and disgust. April 4 was the MLK slaying. I tell his story on MyNewsLA.com. See it here. Below is Damien’s raw response to my questions via Facebook. Consider this the first post fulfilling my new mission statement: “Masterstrack.com aims to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted while showcasing and watchdogging the sport of adult age-group track and field.”

Here’s what Damien shared, lightly edited:

I am going to write this as a stream of consciousness as it encompasses a few connected facets. It will probably be too much information, but hopefully I will have answered most or all of your questions.

First: Yes I still live in Van Nuys and I just turned 65 in August.

I worked my first professional job as an actor in 1970 while I was still in my senior year of high school as a member of the Drama Dept. of the High School of Performing Arts in New York. I was allowed to shoot a film as part of the curriculum. I have worked in the profession for most of the subsequent 47 years. I do have some college credits but none that have affected or influenced my life in any meaningful way.

Damien was admired by Olympic medalist John Carlos (left) at a Southern California Striders banquet.

Athletic achievements as a youth? Again, none to speak of any note and no coaches of any major influence, save for the Bronx Borough Championship won by my Junior high School team in 1967. As for the Army… I’ll get to that. I was always taught by my father to look at things from a historical perspective. One of …“How did we get here… and what does it teach us?”

The major influence in my life has always been my father. If you had attended the Striders Banquet last fall, you might have heard how much of a major factor he was. So I have to start with him.

He was born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1916. The youngest child of the youngest child of a man born a slave in 1845. Because his mother died giving him birth, he was reared by his mother’s eldest sister (born in 1870) and his grandfather. (My father’s father went to sea at 9 years old as a merchant marine cabin boy – since that was preferable to being a Georgia sharecropper.)

Because my great-grandfather couldn’t read, my father had to read to him. This lead him to a voracious appetite for reading and understanding the world around him. Except for when he was working or otherwise occupied, I cannot recall a minute of his not having a book in his hand or in front of his face. The most well-read man I’ve ever known.

In a just world, he probably should have been a teacher or professor, but this is not a just world. His dream as a young man was to attend West Point and become an officer as had Benjamin O’Davis. But America’s bigotry prevented that.

In 1937 he tried joining the Army hoping to achieve his goal via Officer Candidate School. But this was America, and America had racial quotas and rejected him on that basis alone.

So he worked menial jobs in order to afford college, and was attending college in 1942 when the Army drafted him. He protested. But this is America, and America needed servants for its segregated Army and threatened him with prison. So he served his time in the war for our freedom in a quartermaster outfit – which was merely a servants unit (what most black soldiers, trying to prove themselves worthy of equality were relegated to). In fact, German prisoners of war were treated more as equals than the black soldiers of the time. (You see where this is going?)

Fast forward… after his discharge he worked as an attendant in the Veterans Administration Hospital until the sixties, when New York City took over mass transit and blacks were finally allowed to work civil service jobs. He became a bus driver and remained so for twenty-five years.

He would often quip, “I was forty before white folks let me have decent job.” By then, he had married my mother, had children with her, built a house (with his own hands) in the North Bronx, and tried to get his only son into one of the local Little Leagues.

One of my earliest memories of blatant bigotry was my father’s disgust and sadness when he tried signing me up to play baseball, only to have his son face rejection for those same old discriminatory reasons. While at the dinner table or watching the evening news, he would insist on discussing the events of the day and politics of the time and how they related to us.

It was the height of what we now call the civil rights era (as if civil rights only had an era.) I remember watching the news with him as “negroes” marched and my not understanding why they were being baited and attacked by white epithet yelling crowds. He calmly explained it to me. No anger. Not even judgment. Just a historical perspective.

June 12th 1963: He is distraught by the murder of Medgar Evers. I knew the name and understood what had taken place. A month and a half later, one week after my 11th birthday, every adult member of my family and all of their friends went to Washington, D.C., for the March. In February 1965: My father is again distraught by the murder of El-Hajj Malik El Shabazz (Malcolm X). By now I am 12 years and beginning to see and understand that a pattern is developing.

A few months later while coming home from school, myself and a number of other school kids were ousted from the subway by a transit police officer, although we had done nothing, not even talk loudly. A minor incident really, except only the kids with the brown skin were thrown off the train.

I was incensed. Getting home late, I told my father how I had gotten the officers’ badge number and expected to get some justice. The sadness in his eyes froze me. It was time for “the talk.” The talk (or some variation) is what all black parents must have with their children. It is explaining the realities of this society to the innocent.

The acknowledgement that “you” little dark child, will be judged by a different standard than your white counterparts. And you must adapt and act accordingly. No, it’s not fair but your survival depends on it and fairness doesn’t matter when you’re dead. The problem was that in school they insisted on me reciting a pledge and singing a song that had absolutely nothing to do with the realities of my life.

By the time I entered high school, I’d been stopped by enough police officers and had enough weapons pointed at the back of my head to recognize that “the talk” had saved my life on more than one occasion.

So on April 4th, 1968, when again my distraught father told me Martin Luther King had been killed, I was done. I was never going to stand for that lie again. I was never going to say that pledge again. The first time was the very next school assembly when I sat silently during the entrance of the color-guard and song. The teachers were appalled and insisted I stand. I refused. They called my father. He was amused. The following week, without discussion or plan, a handful of other students were also sitting.

Subsequently each week more students were sitting. By the end of the school year almost half the assembly was sitting. Admittedly, most of the white kids were probably sitting to protest the Vietnam War. (We are talking the late sixties.)

As my eighteenth birthday rolled around, I became eligible for the military draft lottery. I was attending Bronx Community College and working in the theater at night. Nothing that would allow me an exemption. Although, I had entirely no interest in fighting some little people 10,000 miles away who evidently were holding my “freedom” hostage.

My father had been watching the lottery drawing and somberly informed me that my number was 33. A more than likely candidate. He then said something I will never forget… “I want you to know that whatever you want to do, I am behind you. If you want to go to Canada, I will help you. We’ve done our time for you. You don’t owe this country shit. They still owe you forty acres and a mule.” It was the greatest declaration of love I would or will ever hear.

But I wasn’t ready or equipped to go and live in Canada. So I joined the Army to keep from being drafted. I foolishly believed that would give me more of a say in where I would be sent. While in basic training, I discovered something that stunned me and further altered my life. (More on that later…)

After basic, the rules relaxed and after-hours time was your own. I spent mine at the base movie house. When lo and behold the screen opens up, a film of the waving flag appears and the Star Spangled Banner begins playing. Everyone in the theater robotically stands except me.

A sergeant behind says, “Don’t you know you are supposed to stand?” I dismissively say, “No, Sarge, you’re supposed to stand. I’m off duty.” I could feel his anger as he demanded my name and unit. I gave it to him. He threatened me with court-martial. I suppose my youthful arrogance made me curious about that possible experience, though nothing came of it. I’m still not sure why.

What I had discovered in basic was that the U.S. Army was creating alcoholics and junkies and it wasn’t an accident. I came upon this realization when I noticed that the use and proliferation of drugs and alcohol on the base, while never specifically encouraged, was never discouraged or even perfunctorily punished.

At Ft. Dix, New Jersey the number of returning soldiers from Vietnam and Germany with drug and/or alcohol problems was massive. I was later informed by a drug counselor as to why: One must remember that this country needed young men prepared to kill and keep killing. What to do with these killing machines if and when they returned was of great concern. Were they just supposed to stop? How do we control them?

Drugs provided an answer. It became personal when tendonitis in my knees was misdiagnosed as Chondromalacia. The military doctors immediately prescribed drugs. Mild at first. I wouldn’t take them, but I kept complaining about the pain in my knees, as I was beginning to see a way out.

So came the prescriptions for more and progressively stronger drugs. Until they got to phenobarbital, a drug prescribed to epileptics. I later discovered that Chondromalacia (misdiagnosed as it was) made me ineligible for military service.

I was discharged before they got the chance to send me to ‘Nam or Germany. As a result of my experience, I never drink alcohol or use any mind altering substance at all. I saw what my country was trying to do to me. I refuse to co-operate. Personally, I believe it too dangerous, especially for a black man in America.

For most of the following years the anthem was never really an issue. Whenever I attended an event where they played it, I simply sat. The playing of that song, at sporting events in particular, is the injecting of a specific political ideology designed to inspire and support a fervor that will allow and enable us to ignore certain realities and disregard injustices.

The only reason it’s the national anthem at all is because Woodrow Wilson’s daughter made a recording of it that he wanted to peddle. So he decreed it Our National Anthem and it became law in 1931. They started playing the song before every Major League Baseball game during the Second World War. Prior to that, they only played it on opening day and the first game of the World Series.

The NFL players weren’t even required to be on the field while it played until 2009. Then certain moneyed interests saw it as a way to sell their social and political agenda. Tie it into the military and promote it as “our brave heroes fighting for your freedom.” It was and remains nothing more than a political statement. A statement that if it was true for us all, would not have to be shoved down our throats or forcibly sold to us.

I coach kids and at the start of their meets they have some young athlete sing the song. (Usually badly off key – but get that indoctrination going.) I would sit. Rarely but occasionally some of the parents would ask me about that. I’d explain, “When the lyrics become facts that pertain to all of us, I will stand. But I’m not holding my breath.”

The argument that some make that I am disrespecting the people fighting for my freedom: My response: What’s my freedom doing in Korea, Vietnam, Panama, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc.? When I’ve had police hold guns on me in New York, been strangled on Staten Island. I got shot in Ferguson, Cleveland, Baltimore and countless other American Cities. All the while my “freedom” is busy in foreign countries?

I find it fascinating that what I am saying will be offensive to a great many people. The proliferation of so many young black men and women killed by police who face no consequences — that, they don’t find offensive. A football player pointing out the hypocrisy, saying this country should just be what it claims it is — that’s offensive.

You say you don’t want politics injected into your sports. What you mean is you don’t want politics you don’t agree with thrown in your face. On this I concur. So if you stop shoving your anthem (i.e. politics) in my face, you won’t have to see my physical disagreement.

(No, Sarge, you’re suppose to stand. I’m off duty.) To paraphrase Patrick Henry: “I know not course others may take but as for my single self…” What must be understood is that my not standing for the National Anthem is not a protest at all. Sometimes when people ask me why I don’t stand, my response is simply… “the same reason I don’t stand for television commercials.”

They are clearly selling a product I don’t buy and politics I don’t agree with. So I quietly, deliberately sit.

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October 4, 2017

14 Responses

  1. Duncan Greenshields - October 4, 2017

    Damian’s response is intensely deep and thoughtful. I remember meeting him around the pool at out hotel at Sacramento WMA. He was quiet. Unlike my group. He was clearly a thoughtful man, I figured. I figured right.

  2. Rob W. - October 4, 2017

    This is by far the best explanation/rational for “protesting” I have heard or seen! Great insight Damian! I particularly like the historical perspective; along with the first class manor in which you choose not to participate. It would be an honor to meet Mr. Leake.

  3. Doug Thompson - October 4, 2017

    I stand for the anthem and salute the flag. But, given the facts described by Mr. Leake I understand why he doesn’t, and I don’t have a problem with it or him. One of America’s greatest losses has been the loss of toleration for differences of opinion and belief.

  4. Weia Reinboud - October 4, 2017

    Keep on Damien.

  5. Paul Murphy - October 5, 2017

    When I stood for the anthem under Democrat regimes I did not consider it an endorsement of their politics. I see the anthem as symbol of solidarity and loyalty to my fellow citizens living and dead and not yet born. All of them, regardless of our political differences. You want to give your cousin the finger? Fine. But it’s bad manners to do it in church at your grandmother’s funeral. Sitting for the anthem is like that, no matter how big an a-hole your cousin might be.

  6. Warren Hamill - October 5, 2017

    Damien, … an insightful, courageous, intelligent and humane response.

  7. Damien Leake - October 5, 2017

    Fascinating that you see the anthem as a symbol of loyalty and solidarity. I, obviously not so much. I also wouldn’t be attending my grandmother’s funeral if she had been abusive to me no matter how sweet my cousin may have thought her to be.

  8. bert bergen - October 5, 2017

    It is pretty obvious no one is going to change anyone’s mind here .So why don’t we get away from what is tearing us apart and get back to what brought us together? Masters Track and Field

  9. Ken Ogden - October 5, 2017

    One of the truly enjoyable aspects of Masters
    Track has been the totally apolitical nature
    of our sport. Can we just get back to what we
    do and leave politics out of our sport? I see
    nothing positive in this discussion, only
    division amongst our fellow competitors.

  10. Charles Roll - October 5, 2017

    Damien, thanks for the history lesson. You are not the first to express these ideas, and yet, people are still threatened by them in 2017!

    Ken, I like your mission statement.

  11. whowouldbeyourdaddy - October 6, 2017

    Long live TRUMP !

  12. Michael Walker - October 7, 2017

    Damien makes an excellent argument for protest and while things have improved, they are far from where they should be.As an American, I am not proud of that fact. While I would prefer that sports and politics were separate, they aren’t. Why do we only play the national anthem for sports events?

  13. Michael Jaqua - October 10, 2017

    Damien’s eloquently stated point of view make’s it very easy for me to support his actions. I have heard many conservatives (and others) bemoan the fact that NFL players have not adequately expressed what it is they are “protesting” when they do not stand for the playing of the national anthem…perhaps they could do themselves a favor and take a look at Damien’s words and adopt his message as their own. Now, back to Track and Field!

  14. David E. Ortman (M64), Seattle, WA - October 13, 2017

    Damien: Thanks for your post. The Oct. 9, 2017, The New Yorker had an excellent comment on this issue, reviewing the past through the eyes of Ronald Reagan and the free speech movement. Part of which includes a former San Jose discus thrower:

    “The N.F.L. protest has its origins in the dispute that followed. In September, 1967, black students at San Jose State College, led by a dashiki-wearing sociology professor and former San Jose discus thrower named Harry Edwards, filed a protest against racism on campus and threatened a mass sit-in on the gridiron during the home football opener. Fearing a riot, administrators called off the game—’the first time a football contest in America had been cancelled because of racial unrest,’ the Times reported. Reagan said that the cancellation was an ‘appeasement of lawbreakers’ and that Edwards was ‘unfit to teach.’ Edwards, who declared Reagan ‘unfit to govern,’ began organizing a campaign for black athletes to protest at the 1968 Summer Olympics, in Mexico City. The two medal winners who raised clenched fists on the podium were from San Jose State’s track-and-field team. Colin Kaepernick’s bended-knee protest against police brutality and racial injustice draws inspiration from their gesture, but their protest came out of the Free Speech Movement.”

    So as to not infringe on the TNY copyright, you can read the rest at:

    https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/10/09/flip-flopping-on-free-speech

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