Why Notre Dame students knelt during the national anthem

Eric AdelsonColumnist
A group of Notre Dame students kneel during the playing of the national anthem prior to Saturday’s game in South Bend. (Courtesy of <a href="https://ndsmcobserver.com/2018/11/students-kneel-during-national-anthem/" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Andrew Cameron/The Observer" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">Andrew Cameron/The Observer</a>)
A group of Notre Dame students kneel during the playing of the national anthem prior to Saturday’s game in South Bend. (Courtesy of Andrew Cameron/The Observer)

Durrell Jackson has been protesting racial inequality at Notre Dame football games for two years.

The junior started right after Colin Kaepernick began his protest of police brutality in 2016. He remembers the reactions of other fans when he first sat during the national anthem. “I got this look from the people standing up next to me, like ‘What are you doing?!’ ” Jackson said by phone Monday. “I gave them a look, ‘Yeah, I’m doing it.’ ”

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This past Saturday, at the last Notre Dame home game of the season, Jackson had plenty of company.

Dozens of students kneeled on the benches of Notre Dame Stadium, in part as a call to fellow students to pay attention to racial issues, in part because of a recent episode of police brutality in Indiana, and in part because of their faith.

“It’s a political issue and a faith issue,” Jackson said. “I’m a black Christian. I love life. I love my brother. I follow what Jesus had done and what he died for. Last time I checked, he died for others. [Racial inequality] is a problem that hit my faith and my politics. I have to go out there. I have to do this.”

Saturday’s protest made some waves, though, because of its size. Shawn Wu, a 20-year-old junior like Jackson, saw his schoolmate sitting during the anthem at the start of the season, during the Michigan game. “When the anthem started, I was on the edge,” Wu said. “I was not sure I was committed to this form of protest. I was undecided. I ended up not having the courage.”

More recently, though, he got a bit of a challenge from a teacher. Wu is in a “Realities of Race” seminar and the instructor sent out a poll on a group chat about whether they would ever kneel. “A lot of us said no,” Wu recalled. “We thought a lot about it.”

Wu ended up texting Jackson, wondering about a larger protest at the last home Irish game. Jackson, happy to have more than a few friends along for his usual demonstration, welcomed it. And on Saturday, something regular became something different.

“We went in there, we all sat together as a group,” Jackson said. “We knew something big was happening, but we still did normal Notre Dame game stuff. We still were hype to see the players come out. We knew we were going to do something we felt in our heart was important. We all kneeled. We stood back up and we all looked at each other.”

“We knew we were going to do something we felt in our heart was important.” — Notre Dame junior Durrell Jackson

Nearly all of the coverage of protests during the national anthem has been about the NFL players and the backlash. We hear from enraged dissenters, from the president, from owners. We even heard from legendary Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz, who accused kneeling athletes of “hurting the sport.”

We don’t hear as much about regular, nameless people who express solidarity without a lot of attention.

And we don’t hear much about the faith-based reasons for those protests.

“Our goal for this protest was to reframe it,” said Wu, who has a minor in theology. “It’s not just a liberal act because we’re snowflakes or whatever, but it’s because of a deep reverence for the flag and also Notre Dame’s tradition of standing up for what is right. This isn’t to limit it to Catholics, but part of it is our faith. I think people forget how much Catholic theology calls for us to stand with the marginalized to face injustice.”

Notre Dame has a special and celebrated tie to civil rights, as personified by Father Theodore Hesburgh, the former president who stood hand-in-hand with Martin Luther King, Jr. at a rally at Soldier Field in 1964. Hesburgh was awarded the Medal of Freedom “for his visionary work against elements of apartheid in America,” according to a page on the Notre Dame website.

“From the exhausting fact-finding missions to the final deliberations over wording, Father Hesburgh was acknowledged as the principal architect of the Civil Rights Act and served on the Civil Rights Commission from its inception in 1957 until 1972,” the site says.

There is timing in the religious aspect of the protest, as according to the Religious News Service, Catholic leaders are expected to issue their first major letter on racism since the civil rights era in the days ahead.

But it goes beyond faith. Just recently, ProPublica reported on a video of Elkhart, Indiana, police beating a handcuffed man in a police station. The mayor of the town reportedly only sent the case to prosecutors after the South Bend Tribune requested a copy of the video, which shows the handcuffed man bleeding for six minutes after being repeatedly struck. (The man in custody was eventually sentenced to a year in jail for battery.)

Jackson said that growing up in Louisiana, the police were a force to fear. He remembers a time when a fight broke out at a local roller rink and he says a cousin was struck with a baton for trying to retrieve his skates.

“This affects me, my future kids, my brothers, my father, the men I know and the men I don’t know, that look just like me,” Jackson said. “That’s a problem I have to stand up and fight for.”

He said he would protest on his own, regardless of any reaction, and he will continue to protest even if others don’t join him next season.

When asked the early reaction to their protest, Wu and Jackson allowed a laugh. They mentioned a comment on a Religious News Service story which decried the demonstration. “I HAVE NOT MET ONE SINGLE RACIST IN MY LIFE,” the commenter wrote, before posting a link to a site about white genocide.

Wu, Jackson and several other organizers are asking for more constructive dialogue in the weeks to come.

“The hope is that as the 4th ranked Irish play the last home football game of the season, our collective action might spark campus-wide dialogues and conversations around issues that don’t ever cross the minds of many,” a Facebook post said. “That we might push back against this campus’ long standing culture of refusing to talk about sensitive yet important injustices.”

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