As protests aimed at racial inequality during the national anthem spread across the country last year, one school in the Buffalo area joined the fray. And when South Park (N.Y.) High took a knee during the strands of the Star Spangled Banner, they received both support and vitriol from all corners, including their own network of alumni.
Among the most vocal about his displeasure was Art Jayes, a 67-year-old retired Buffalo heavy machinery operator. As reported by the Buffalo News, Jayes is a former South Park swimmer who is also a member of the South Park Athletics Hall of Fame and a veteran of the Vietnam war.
Jayes’ comments after seeing images of the kneeling players made the impact that protest had on living veterans clear.
“They might as well put that knee on my chest and on every other Vietnam veteran,” Jayes told the News.
Yet what happened next showcased precisely how the debate over these protests can resolve themselves in a civil, harmonious way. Jayes answered the South Park players’ protest with one of his own, marching in front of the school for 3 1/2 hours while holding a flag. That got the attention of South Park star Elijah Lewis, who joined a group of student athletes and asked to meet Jayes.
At that meeting, both sides laid out the larger philosophical reasons and personal anecdotes that inspired their protests. And while Jayes disagreed with the team’s choice to take a knee during the national anthem, he was moved by the larger issues they articulated, eventually agreeing to join them if they ever protested against the Buffalo police force.
In response, Lewis and his teammates all agreed to stand and respect Jayes and other veterans during the playing of the anthem.
“We wanted equality for everybody,” Lewis told the News, “but we didn’t want to disrespect him.”
Far from it. In fact, by speaking the issue out, both sides have gained respect and unity around the issue, most directly when Jayes joined the South Park team on the sideline for the national anthem last Friday. He did so wearing a t-shirt signed by the entire team and surrounded by his family, and the message he took away from the interaction was much larger than any disappointment he experienced when he first saw the players kneeling.
“These guys are genuine,” Jayes told the News. “These guys made a decision that changed my life and I think they made a decision that might have changed theirs.
“Do you know what I think? People need to talk about this instead of yelling back and forth screaming. Talk it out. There’s nothing wrong with talking it out.”