Howard Cheerleaders Add Voices to the Anthem Debate by Taking a Knee

Mark Tracy, New York Times, October 13, 2017

A few minutes before kickoff on Oct. 7 at Howard University’s Greene Stadium—about two miles from the White House—the public address announcer said, “We ask that you please rise as we honor the United States of America.” At the 50-yard-line, four members of the Air Force R.O.T.C. presented the colors.

But when the university’s “Showtime” marching band played “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Howard’s cheerleaders, who were lined up at one end zone, did not heed the request. They were kneeling.

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The cheerleaders’ gesture, which began in September 2016 shortly after Kaepernick’s protest gained notice, is not the only distinguishing mark in Howard’s pregame program. For decades, at home games the anthem has been paired with “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the turn-of-the-century hymn that has become known as the black national anthem.

The “Lift Every Voice” tradition at Howard games goes back at least to the 1980s, according to Howard’s former sports information director, Edward Hill Jr. And the song’s informal stature as the black national anthem predates the codification of “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the national anthem in 1931, said Imani Perry, a Princeton professor whose book on “Lift Every Voice” is due out next year.

During “Lift Every Voice,” which last Saturday was played immediately before the national anthem, the Howard cheerleaders, the band’s dancers and some spectators in the crowd of several hundred raised their arms in the Black Power salute. Then, with a flourish, the cheerleaders, one at a time down the line, switched from raised fist to bent knee, like a row of falling dominoes.

There was no booing from the crowd, as there has been at several N.F.L. stadiums where players have knelt. The lack of drama also contrasted with what reportedly happened the same day at Kennesaw State, a public university in Georgia, where five cheerleaders attracted controversy and drew threats for kneeling during the national anthem.

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Demarco Brooks, who became the cheerleaders’ coach this season, said that he opposed kneeling—“it wouldn’t be my first choice”—but that he was respectful of their rights. He insisted that each cheerleader decide for herself whether to kneel. The captains said it would have been fine had anyone declined, but no one did.

And the squad is intent on sticking to this ritual.

“Injustice is still continuing,” Stallworth said. “So we’re going to continue to kneel until we see a change.”

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