Before NFL Players Made Their Move, Students Were Protesting Racial Injustice

While it took fighting words to be said by Donald Trump for NFL players to make a move, young people understood the magnitude of the moment much sooner. They’ve been standing up, fighting back and “taking a knee” to protest racial injustice for months. Many of our young people, high school and collegiate athletes among them, were some of the first to understand the power of the protest and that protesting injustice is hardest when it is not in vogue.


Last year in Minneapolis, the South High School's girls' volleyball team kneeled during the national anthem. In Dorchester, MA, a high school football player took a knee in the name of protesting injustice. Like the ladies of Minneapolis, this young man was inspired by Colin Kaepernick. An entire San Francisco high school football team took a knee in protest, also citing the inspiration of the then 49er’s quarter back. The team captain encouraged his team to take a stand, telling them “This is for helping everybody else in the world to understand that black people and people of color are going though difficulties and they need help. It’s not going to take care of itself.”

My hometown of Camden, NJ saw one of its high school football teams, named after another racist president Woodrow Wilson, take a knee during a football game. They showed courage. Just this month, 8 year olds in Illinois took a knee in protest of the acquittal of a white police officer accused of murdering a black man after a car chase in St. Louis. NFL players today kneel to protest Donald Trump; young people have been taking knees to protest racial injustice.

Math, science and literacy are vital for our students. But history shows students who we are as a people and where we have been. History is how they begin to understand where we’re going, and, if necessary, to change directions. Protest is deeply embedded in the history of our nation; it’s as American as White supremacy. Colin Kaepernick’s stance is in the tradition of Crispus Attucks, Frederick Douglass, Fannie Lou Hamer and Muhammad Ali. Some freedom fighters forfeited their careers or a portion of them, like Kaepernick. Others lost their lives.

Protesting the protesters is also American tradition, but so too is the effort to co-opt movements. As displayed by Shad Khan, it is now vogue for owners to “protest” with players. The truth is that all of the unity against Donald Trump allows the NFL to co-opt a movement with no meaning behind other than defending the league’s ability to make money. If this were about protesting the unlawful killing of Black people by police officers, maybe Colin Kaepernick would be employed by one of the owners. But he is not. The owners statements are more about an attack on the NFL than standing or sitting on oppression; none of this is about anti-oppression or a protest of injustice. Many Black players protesting now feel personally attacked. However the NFL owners created the conditions for Donald Trump to feel emboldened to say what he said. Owners who donated to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, like the people who voted for him, have legitimized Donald Trump.

As educators, it is up to us to be teachers of history. We must teach the truth and not conceal history in the moment. Heroes of justice stand up when it is the most unpopular. That is what Colin Kaepernick did, and the NFL players who protested this weekend stand on his shoulders. That is also what many students have done. Our young people have courage and conviction. Our young people get it; they are fearless. And while many of us are overly concerned with raising standardized test scores and installing a culture of law and order in our classrooms, our students have in mind a bigger goal: improving the moral compass of a nation. The job of educators is to cultivate that passion so that these young people can change the world. If Colin Kaepernick was able to do that with one gesture, we should be able to do that in our classrooms every day.

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