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 on 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 three cheerleaders attracted controversy and drew threats for kneeling during the national anthem.
“It’s not surprising that when there’s an anthem protest, you see H.B.C.U.s at the forefront of the resistance, because that’s where we’ve always been,” said Marc Lamont Hill, a Temple University professor who studies African-American culture, referring to historically black colleges and universities.
“H.B.C.U.s are a space of nurture,” he added, “where you can be surrounded by black excellence, black genius, and black excellence and brilliance can become normalized. And also black resistance can become normalized.”
Camille Washington, the mother of a Howard player, was in the stands wearing Kaepernick’s 49ers jersey. For this game, she said, she felt she could wear neither team’s apparel given that she had attended North Carolina Central University, Howard’s opponent. (North Carolina Central won, 13-7.) But her jersey was also a tribute, she said, to Kaepernick’s protest.
“I’m a teacher,” Washington said, “and I want our kids to know they have a voice, and one way to do that is protesting in a way that brings light to what they believe in.”
As at many H.B.C.U.s, Howard’s cheerleading squad rivals the football team in visibility and in emphasis on ritual. A Howard cheerleader from decades ago is likely to remember exactly how to perform the signature “It Takes a B” cheer. The squad’s “stop and shake” style, said Alex Jones, Stallworth’s fellow captain, makes it distinct from most others.
“We do add an additional flavor, a little more spice into our cheers and our dances that make it pop just a little bit more,” Jones said, adding that “being in that black space opens it up.”
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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