Taking a Knee: a gesture redefined for protest

Chloe Baker, Research Intern

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull.

chloe.ambaker@gmail.com

Getting down on one knee has been anything but a threatening gesture. For some examples, it’s used to pay one’s respect, to devote oneself to the Lord in prayer, and to love another human being by asking for their hand in marriage. However, Colin Kaepernick’s and Eric Reid’s decision to Take the Knee on September 1st, 2016, during the American national anthem, was seen as an act of defiance and disrespect, at least that’s how it looked to some of the white population of the United States. For Kaepernick and Reid, this was their way of demonstrating that enough was enough. Why should they stand and salute the flag when it represented a country that continually treated black communities and other minorities as unequal? Since then, a growing variety of sports have become the stage for Black Lives Matter protests involving Taking a Knee, as both have a long history with the struggle for equality and the fight against oppression.

Is Taking a Knee a new way to protest?

The short answer to the above question is no. The Wilberforce Institute has been researching the idea behind Taking a Knee, and what it has uncovered is that while Taking a Knee has been firmly established by 2021 as a way to challenge racism and oppression through George Floyd protests, black individuals have been making the gesture for centuries. Its earliest depiction was in 1787 on a Wedgewood medallion for the abolition cause with the famous words ‘Am I Not A Man and A Brother’. However, this popular abolitionist image is controversial because it was created for a white audience. It shows a supplicant slave in chains with minimal clothing and sanitised of the brutality of slavery, asking white society for the right to be human (Marcus Wood, The Horrible Gift of Freedom, 2010). It was the civil rights era that saw a reclamation of the gesture by black communities as black men and women took a knee in prayer protests and civil disobedience for equality. In the twenty-first century, it is through sports that people of all backgrounds associate Taking a Knee with protesting racism.

Sport as a platform

Since 2016 the question ‘why sports?’ has made its appearance now and then regarding protests taking place in sports settings. The answer to that question can be broken down into several factors. The most obvious one is that sports games congregate the population of the surrounding areas into one spot which means the protest will be seen by a substantial amount of people. Bigger arenas such as the 2020 Olympics are filmed too, and will therefore have the bonus of reaching an even greater audience over a larger radius. Secondly, like any other profession, playing sport is a job and its players are people who wish to create a better working environment with equal opportunities. Scholars Adam Love, Alexander Deeb, and Steven Waller use the National Basketball Association for an example, stating that within the profession people of colour make up 80% of players, but only hold 30% of head coaching positions, 10% of general manager positions, and 6.9% of CEO/President roles.

As outsiders, fans only see that high player percentage, and so they tend to think of sport as removed from ‘everyday concerns of inequality, power, and discrimination’, and the success of athletes of colour as proof that racism is not rampant in the sporting world. Taking a Knee disrupts that view. Thirdly, the reaction the protest receives reflects the attitudes of the area and can therefore prove its point. For example, a football match between Millwall and Derby saw fans boo football players who decided to Take a Knee to protest racism. Lastly, and most significantly, black athletes have been using sports to fight for change for the better part of a century.

Jackie Robinson joined the Montreal Royals, a baseball team, in 1946 and successfully broke the ‘colour line’ of Major League Baseball when appearing on the field for the National League Brooklyn Dodgers from 1947 until 1956. Eroseanna Robinson stayed seated for the American national anthem at the Pan American Games of 1959. Tommie Smith and John Carlos were kicked out of the Olympics in 1968 for their raised fist gesture at the podium, and Wyomia Tyus wore black shorts at the same event to subtly protest, all in the name of highlighting racial injustice. The list continues. Why sport? Because it’s where people give their undivided attention.

Taking a Knee in sport is the next step in a sequence that goes back to slavery. Black men and women Taking a Knee for a cause is not a twenty-first-century idea but has appeared in history at crucially important moments. The idea of the gesture within sports means that it is kept in the front of people’s minds via popular events, expressing that racism does not cease to exist because one cannot see it.

‘Am I Not A Man And A Brother’ Chair, Wilberforce Institute. Photo taken by Chloé Baker.

Remembering the Australian Freedom Ride

Historic and present-day campaigns for Indigenous Civil Rights

James Baker, ‘Falling Through the Net’ PhD Research Cluster

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

j.baker-2019@hull.ac.uk

In December 2020, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that the country’s national anthem will be amended in order to better represent the nation’s aboriginal past. The anthem will no longer refer to Australia as being ‘young and free’, a change that was well-received in the country’s parliament. It came as part of a broader campaign to better recognise indigenous Australians, including the induction of Johnny Mullagh to the Australian Cricket Hall of Fame, the first aboriginal player to receive this accolade. When exploring the role of indigenous Australians in the country’s past, a defining event that is often overlooked is the Freedom Ride of 1965. This was inspired partly by the American Civil Rights movement and particularly the Freedom Rides that took place earlier in the decade. While many Australians continued to support the movement in the US, these events also encouraged people to address domestic civil rights abuses.

This is not to say that Australians at the time had previously been oblivious to indigenous issues. Just one month prior to the Freedom Ride, an article in the Canberra Times explored a recent survey conducted by the Sydney Morning Herald that found that tens of thousands of indigenous Australians were suffering from poverty, wage discrimination and limited access to education. Racism, both institutional and societal, was stated to be the cause, with the article citing substandard legislation as well as social indifference towards these problems. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were not yet recognised as Australian citizens and they had therefore been consistently ignored by governments at all levels.

Equally, aboriginal groups had been active in Australia for many decades prior to the Freedom Ride and had taken inspiration from campaigns in other parts of the world. For example, aboriginal dockworkers in Sydney campaigned throughout the early-twentieth century against racial discrimination, low wages and dangerous working conditions. Their occupation required them to travel across the Pacific Ocean which meant that many workers also witnessed first-hand several African anti-imperialist and social justice campaigns. As Alyssa L. Trometter has explained, indigenous labourers understood their struggle to be global and ideas pertaining to the attainment of racial equality were frequently exchanged between both continents. The Australian Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s built upon these earlier exchanges while utilising many of the same methods used in American campaigns for racial equality, including the Freedom Rides.

The Australian Freedom Ride commenced in 1965 in New South Wales. The student-led campaign was largely organised by Charles Perkins who would later become the first indigenous graduate of an Australian university. The event sought to highlight ongoing economic and social prejudices against indigenous Australians in addition to explaining how provincial governments continued to exclude aboriginal people from public facilities. The public baths at Moree became a symbol of the region’s ongoing racial segregation. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples had long been banned from these and other such venues, and white opponents of the Freedom Ride subjected the participants to racism and violence during attempts to desegregate the pool. Moreover, after their demonstration in Walgett, a driver of a large vehicle attempted to collide with the bus carrying the Freedom Riders, forcing the bus off the road and placing the lives of the demonstrators in danger. Despite this, local newspapers rarely reported the incident and the culprit was not brought to justice. The Freedom Ride continued undeterred. As the year progressed, the campaign gained increasing indigenous and non-indigenous support with pressure on the federal government to introduce civil rights for First Nation Australians intensifying.

The Freedom Ride succeeded in bringing about many positive changes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Locally, the Freedom Ride led to the desegregation of Moree Baths as well as cinemas, hair salons and other amenities across New South Wales. As for Charles Perkins, after becoming the first indigenous graduate of tertiary education, he would later become the first indigenous Secretary of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and would have a substantial influence on Australian politics throughout this career. This event is also widely credited with helping to bring about the 1967 Australian Referendum, the result of which meant that indigenous people were given citizenship and stronger civil protections. The attainment of legal recognition for aboriginal Australians demonstrates that the Freedom Ride was not simply a local movement, but instead influenced public opinion and highlighted injustices nationwide.

Sadly, this did not lead to the outright cessation of discrimination against indigenous Australians. Aboriginal Australians are still disproportionally affected by unemployment, economic hardship and reduced access to state education. Furthermore, in 2008 the Australian Federal Government apologised to indigenous children who had been forcibly removed from their families to be raised in governmental and religious institutions. Official estimates suggest that as many as one in three indigenous children were separated from their families between 1910 and 1970. In some states including Victoria, this practice continued until 1976, over a decade after the Freedom Ride took place. Moreover, societal prejudice still persists. A 2020 study at Australia National University found that 3 in 4 people held a negative view of indigenous Australians and recent Black Lives Matter protests highlighted the ongoing issue of aboriginal deaths in police custody, with over 400 having occurred in the last thirty years alone.

It is however important to remember that First Nation Australians have played an active role in advocating for civil rights and legal equality. The Freedom Ride began as a local movement but gained national support and succeeded in creating meaningful legal change for the country’s minority groups. It must be remembered not only as a pivotal moment for the country’s treatment of its indigenous peoples but also for the global campaign for human rights. The influence of this event can still be felt today and underlines the significant contribution that indigenous Australians have made to the country’s history, a contribution that for far too long has been all but disregarded.

The Student Action for Aborigines bus outside the Hotel Bogabilla, February 1965 https://www.flickr.com/photos/statelibraryofnsw/20135180866/