By Ken Stone
On April 4, 1968, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. A thousand miles away, a young drama student at New York’s High School of Performing Arts decided to sit during the national anthem.
Now 65, career actor Damien Leake of Van Nuys maintains his stand.
He’s still sitting.
Nearly a half-century before Colin Kaepernick triggered a national debate, Leake peacefully objected to racial injustice the same way. Other young black men joined him.
But the Army veteran who went on to roles in “Serpico” and “Apocalypse Now” may be among the few whose pioneering protest continues.
A day after President Trump told an Alabama rally that NFL owners should fire any “son of a bitch” player who doesn’t stand for the national anthem, Leake reacted on Facebook.
“Does it ever occur to you that the playing of the national anthem has no place at a sporting event, period?” Leake wrote. “Those of you who know me from high school may remember that I decided to start sitting during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner on April 4th 1968, and have been sitting ever since.”
He said the act almost got him court-martialed at Fort Dix in New Jersey — he sat while the song was being played before movie showings on base.
“What bothers me most is to now hear people say how they don’t like when athletes mix politics and sports,” he said, then listed famously political symbols such as Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson and Muhammed Ali.
The 20-year Californian concluded: “Stop lying to yourself, [America]. Your hypocrisy is showing.”
Three decades ago, as a 31-year-old professional actor, Leake was profiled in The Washington Post, typecast in films as a “threatening” black man.
“I don’t get considered for certain roles,” he said in that 1984 interview. “Largely I am cast as a tender, sensitive … half-crazed killer.
“A killer of men,” he said with a laugh.
Leake played a mugger and victim of Charles Bronson’s vengeance in 1974’s “Death Wish” and a rapist beaten by police in 1973’s “Serpico.” He’s accumulated at least 70 movie and TV acting credits, including roles on “The Cosby Show” (1992), “Ask Harriet,” “Prison Break,” “Men of a Certain Age” and several soaps.
Most recently, he was Dr. Healy in “How to Get Away with Murder,” Dr. Foster in TV’s “Major Crimes” and Dr. Martine in “The Bad Twin.” (His carefully trimmed circle beard helps.) In 2018, he’ll appear in the James McTeigue-directed home-invasion drama “Breaking In.” [He’s still filming.]
But as an athlete — a world-class age-group sprinter and national champion who runs the 100-meter dash in 12 seconds — Leake has a unique perspective on the anthem debate.
He also cites his father Solomon’s experience as pivotal in his protest.
In a 2,300-word response to MyNewsLA.com, Leake told how Solomon — the Georgia-born child of the youngest child of a man born a slave in 1845 — read to his illiterate great-grandfather.
Acquiring a voracious appetite for reading and understanding the world around him, Solomon became 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.”
Blocked by bigotry from attending the U.S. Military Academy at West Point (his dream), Solomon in 1937 tried joining the Army, hoping to attend Officer Candidate School.
“But this was America, and America had racial quotas and rejected him on that basis alone,” Leake said. “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.”
After his discharge, Solomon worked as an attendant in a Veterans Administration Hospital until the 1960s, when New York City took over mass transit and blacks were finally allowed to work civil service jobs.
Leake said his dad became a bus driver for 25 years and would often quip: “I was 40 before white folks let me have a decent job.”
Solomon Leake — who died last year at 99 — built a house with his own hands in the North Bronx, and tried to get his only son into Little League.
“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 [me] face rejection for those same old discriminatory reasons,” Leake said.
“While at the dinner table or watching the evening news, he would insist on discussing the events of the day … 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.)”
Leake says he watched the news as “Negroes” marched, not understanding why they were being baited and attacked by white crowds.
“He calmly explained it to me,” Leake said. “No anger. Not even judgment. Just a historical perspective.”
A week after his 11th birthday, Leake joined his family at the August 1963 March on Washington, where he heard King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
In February 1965 came the murder of el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz (Malcolm X), which left Solomon distraught.
“By now I am 12 years and beginning to see and understand that a pattern is developing,” Leake said. “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.”
Leake called it a minor incident with a major revelation: “Only the kids with brown skin were thrown off the train. I was incensed.”
He shares the rest of the story:
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 acknowledgment 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 when an anguished Solomon told Damien that civil-rights leader King had been killed, the youngster said: “I was done. I was never going to stand for that lie again. I was never going to say that pledge again.”
The first opportunity was the next day’s school assembly. Damien sat silently during the entrance of the color guard and song.
“The teachers were appalled and insisted I stand,” Leake said. “I refused. They called my father. He was amused. The following week, without discussion or plan, a handful of other students were also sitting.”
As weeks passed, more students sat, and “by the end of the school year almost half the assembly was sitting” at the school that inspired the movie and TV series “Fame.”[“Admittedly, most of the white kids were probably sitting to protest the Vietnam War,” Leake said.]
After Leake turned 18, he went to Bronx Community College and worked the theater at night.
Then Solomon informed his son that his draft number had arrived — 33, a bad one — and unforgettably said: “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.”
(Leake says he was ineligible for a college deferment.)
Leake called it “the greatest declaration of love I would or will ever hear” but wasn’t ready to flee to Canada. He enlisted in the Army in the mistaken belief he would have a say in where he was sent.
At Fort Dix, New Jersey, he completed basic training and used his free time to watch movies at the base theater.
“Lo and behold, the screen opens up, a film of the waving flag appears and the Star-Spangled Banner begins playing,” he recalls. “Everyone in the theater robotically stands except me.”
A sergeant behind him said: “Don’t you know you are supposed to stand?”
Leake says he replied: “No, Sarge, you’re supposed to stand. I’m off duty.”The angry sergeant demanded Leake’s name and unit.
“I gave it to him,” Leake said. “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.”
So the dissident of Charlie Company, 3rd Battalion, 3rd platoon avoided punishment. But he would serve only five months, gaining a medical discharge because of knee pain.
In the following years, he continued his silent protest.
“Whenever I attended an event where they played it, I simply sat,” he said. “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.”
Leake adds: “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.”
Leake says “certain moneyed interests” saw the anthem 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,’” he said in a Facebook chat. “It was and remains nothing more than a political statement — [one] that if it was true for us all would not have to be shoved down our throats or forcibly sold to us.”
Now Leake coaches track — through the San Fernando Valley Youth Conference — and hears a young athlete [“Usually badly off key”] sing the national anthem at the start of meets.
Still, he sits.
Parents “rarely but occasionally” ask him why, he said.
He explains to them: “When the lyrics become facts that pertain to all of us, I will stand. But I’m not holding my breath.”
But what about those — including the president — who say he’s disrespecting the people fighting for his freedom?
Leake responds: “What’s my freedom doing in Korea, Vietnam, Panama, Iraq, Afghanistan etc.,” while African-Americans are being killed by police in Ferguson, Cleveland, Baltimore and “countless other American cities?”
A man with an easy and photogenic smile, Leake sees irony in how so many people find his views offensive.
“The proliferation of so many young black men and women killed by police who face no consequences — that, they don’t find offensive,” he said. “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.”
He agrees with that, adding: “So if you stop shoving your anthem (politics) in my face, you won’t have to see my physical disagreement.”
Leake paraphrases a line from Patrick Henry’s “Give Me Liberty” speech: “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,” he said. “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, he says.
“I don’t buy any politics I don’t agree with,” Leake says. “So I quietly, deliberately sit.”
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