Taking a Knee, Then and Now – Prof. Reggie Williams

ThomasLindaOver the weekend, President Donald J. Trump tweeted a criticism of kneeling, protesting NFL stars – trying to conflate athletes protesting violence against black people with disrespect for the country and our military. In response, members of roughly two dozen NFL teams either knelt, locked arms, showing solidarity not only with the suffering of black people of the United States, but Colin Kaepernick – the originator of the protests. Blog contributor Rev. Dr. Reggie Williams weighs in on the conversation. Please read, comment, and share!

Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of the LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”

Statue of Liberty on her knee in protest.jpg

On April 3, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered what would be his last sermon, in Memphis, Tennessee. He was there to help promote the cause of black sanitation workers who were on strike in resistance to the brutal injustices they were subjected to at work. At stake was an understanding of the very notion of human being that would include black people. The striking sanitation workers were seen carrying signs that read “I Am A Man,” in opposition to the practice of reducing the black sanitation workers to treatment reserved for animals.  

If we are human beings, than black people should be seen as welcomed to the Civil Rights that correspond with the condition of all human beings within the democratic republic of the United States. One of the common methods of protest during the Civil Rights Movement available to the sanitation workers was marching. But city officials in Memphis were opposed to their marching, as were the people of Montgomery Alabama, thirteen years earlier, and all other towns and cities where the Movement sought to arouse the conscience of the nation during it’s thirteen years of life.

Memphis sanitation workers protesting in 1968.

The sanitation worker’s protest was illegal. It was in violation of a court ordered injunction put in place at the request of the city officials two years prior, forbidding municipal employees from just such protests. During his sermon, King appealed to democratic ideals that are understood to be core the nation when he said, “Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right.” Thirteen years earlier during the Montgomery bus boycott, peaceful protesters were also denounced as disturbers of the peace, and immoral. In Albany, Birmingham, Selma, Washington, D.C., and Chicago, protesters were described as lawbreakers, malcontents, anarchists, and un-American.

Opposition to Civil Rights protests was buttressed by lofty ideals like patriotism, law and order, and Christian piety. What’s not so clear is the way that those very ideals served to sharpen the blades of dehumanization and oppression.  In his book An American Dilemma, published in 1944, the Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal examined the paradox of a slave-owning nation that espoused lofty ideals like liberty and justice for all. What he found was that the lofty ideals were part of the problem. In order to hold on to slavery and their lofty ideals, Myrdal claims that racism became the mechanism that held it all together.

Racism was the creation of a sub-human category, a hierarchy of being with white at the top, and black as the anchor. The category of the human did not apply to black people.  We were partially human, which is to say, sub-human. That logic helped maintain the integrity of the lofty ideals in the practice of slavery, as “liberty and justice for all humans.” The place of the subhuman within a civilized democratic republic is one of subjugation to the civilized human—to whites—not co-participation in the democratic republic, or co-humanity. The greatness of this country was indeed in the practice of its democratic ideals, but they were sutured to a hegemonic notion of universal humanity. They were for whites only. Any protest from the racialized subject, from black people, is anarchy, or lawlessness and demands for equality are profane. And in a civilized Christian nation, such things are unheard of.

Fast-forward to 2016 and the movement for Black Lives that is demanding that police be held accountable for murdering unarmed black people.


When Colin Kaepernick knelt on one knee during the national anthem at the beginning of football games, he was continuing the unfortunate, but still necessary historical protest for Civil Rights. His protest was peaceful, but that didn’t matter. It was on behalf of black life, rendered something other than human life. The protest was meant to draw attention to the concrete reality of brutal loss of life, and the injustice that allowed it all to happen without accountability from the nation’s justice system. His gesture of solidarity has cost him his job, and continues to be a source of disgust and vitriol.


Although the protest was to give attention to brutal injustice, opposition to Kaepernick is focused on concepts like disrespect for the national flag, and anti-America. Yet, like King, Kaepernick and other protesters recognize protest, as within the moral boundaries of the character of the U.S. that would distinguish this country from dictatorships and oppressive regimes, “The greatness of America is the right to protest for right!” With Kaepernick, and now many other professional athletes, showing solidarity with black people who are demanding co-humanity and police accountability has run headlong into the honor of the nation and its flag.

There’s something ironic and historical about that. Is it possible for black people to be perceived as co-human in this country? What does the nation stand for, with its lofty ideals?

MLKing on his knee_protest and prayer
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., kneeling in prayer before a protest.

Martin Luther King Jr. appealed to the nations lofty ideals as the spokesperson for the civil rights movement. By doing so, he placed black people on moral ground not intended for us by the founding fathers who so shrewdly crafted that moral ground on the backs of enslaved black people. The fashioning of that ideological structure of white supremacy and black inhumanity, what I’m calling the national moral ground, is an historic act of violence, which makes sense of black suffering in the context of a nation whose laws and justice are for whites only.

Jacksonville Jaguars kneeling at their game in London, England – one of many to do so in response to Twitter criticism from U.S. President Donald Trump.

That is the problem we face, today. Any protest, any perceived effort to move in a direction other than subjection to white supremacy, will be met with vitriol until the greatness of America is no longer tethered to white supremacy.

reggiewilliams-cropThe Rev. Dr. Reggie Williams before becoming Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at McCormick Theological Seminary in 2012, he received his Ph.D. in Christian ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary in 2011. He earned a Master’s degree in Theology from Fuller in 2006 and a Bachelor’s degree in Religious Studies from Westmont College in 1995. Dr. Williams’ research interests are primarily focused on Christological hermeneutics, and Christian morality. He has a particular interest in how the Western-world understanding of Christianity has been calibrated to a false ideal that corresponds with racialized interpretations of humanity, morality, and Jesus. Dr. William’s book Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance (Baylor University Press, 2014) was selected as a Choice Outstanding Title in 2015, in the field of religion. The book is an analysis of the influence of exposure to Harlem Renaissance thought and worship at Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist on the German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, during his year of post-doctoral study at Union Seminary in New York, 1930-31. Dr. Williams’ research interests include theological anthropology, Christian ethics derived from interpretations of Jesus, race, politics and black church life. His current book project includes a religious critique of whiteness in the Harlem Renaissance.

18 thoughts on “Taking a Knee, Then and Now – Prof. Reggie Williams

  1. Pingback: Taking a Knee, Then and Now - KineticsLive.com

  2. Marvis

    Great post. And an interesting historical fact to note here is that between 1812-15 when the Star Spangled Banner (U.S. national anthem) was penned by Francis Key African Americans were still slaves while white Americans were fighting the oppression of British control. Hence, an important omission from the popular
    national anthem is the third stanza which disparages former slaves who were now working for the British army for their own freedom. The third stanza says:

    “Their blood has wash’d out their foul footstep’s pollution.
    No refuge could save the hireling and slave
    From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,
    And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave.”

    If African Americans knew the full intent and history of the Star Spangled Banner, they would never be standing to honor or sing this song in the first place!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve been having a lot of arguments on Facebook this week. I’m never proud of these faceless encounters with my so-called friends, but sometimes, it just seems like these conversations are so necessary. As a white young woman going into the ministry in a predominantly white church, I feel called to talk about this issue that Prof. Williams discusses. I must educate my fellow white Americans and point to the truth. As Prof. Williams eloquently writes, this issue is not about our flag. Taking a knee is about solidarity with and advocacy for those that our country silences; it is about the white supremacy that pervades every institution in this country. Thank you, Prof. Williams for your witness and striking analogy of our times have with those of Dr. King. I will be carrying these words with me this week and for a long time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sharayah Robinson

      Liz and Dr. Williams, Yes! – This is exactly how I have been feeling. It is my job, along with all other white people, to take down and destroy the racist structures and systems our ancestors have created and we have sustained and from which we have benefited. My main frustration this week has been just what Dr. Williams points out, saying, “Although the protest was to give attention to brutal injustice, opposition to Kaepernick is focused on concepts like disrespect for the national flag, and anti-America” and having to push past the perceived anti-patriotism as though that’s the main issue, and actually discuss and work to fight to save lives and dismantle police violence and oppression. As Dr. Williams says, “like King, Kaepernick and other protesters recognize protest, as within the moral boundaries of the character of the U.S. that would distinguish this country from dictatorships and oppressive regimes, ‘The greatness of America is the right to protest for right!'” Thank you, Dr. Williams. And like Liz, I will be carrying these words and wisdom with me into the future fight for justice.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Cathy

    I remember learning in school as a kid that the first step to destroying a group of people is to strip them of their humanity. I appreciate that you pointed out how black people were thought of as subhuman in the past, and perhaps still are by some folks. This is an important fact to remember as we work to dismantle racism.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Josh

      With Cathy, I too appreciate this reminder precisely because it is uncomfortable to remember. I was just re-reading a section of Pamela Lightsey’s excellent book, “Our Lives Matter: A Womanist Queer Theology,” in which she lifts up the Church’s own complicit history in deeming African slaves as subhuman by withholding the sacraments and rites of the Church (86-87).

      True to her womanist commitments, Lightsey then offers an intersectional analysis: “Thus just as baptizing slaves was tacit approval of their humanity, the United Methodist Church’s delegates’ objections to allowing full membership and ordination privileges of LGBTQ persons has often to do with an objection related to our bodies: they perceive us either as being the embodiment of sin or as ‘practicing’ sin with our bodies” (87).

      Counter to this narrative of violence done to black bodies and queer bodies stands a narrative of love that leads to inclusion, as Lightsey emphasizes the need for self-love that honors the imago dei. This is a self-love that expresses itself in “‘practic[ing]’ loving other persons of ‘sacred worth’ seeking to love our neighbors as ourselves” (88). This, as I read Lightsey, is the narrative embodied by acts of resistance, like taking a knee or marching for civil rights, for these are ultimately acts of love striving for full inclusion.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Kyle

    Dr. Williams,

    Thank you so much for your timely discussion. It is clear that this topic, especially after this weekend has been thrust to the forefront of the wider discussion of equality in America. As a whole hearted believer in what you have written, but also a white man, I find that I am often caught in some sort of internal tension between what I believe and my white enculturation. It’s for this reason that I think your argument for human v. sub human is so important for us to hear – that we might start to truly understand what is at the heart of the protest. This is not a protest against a ‘flag’, ‘military’, or ‘national anthem’, but a protest for basic human rights and transparency. Your words have certainly given me a better understanding of how my call to ministry is related to this issue.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Erin Coleman Branchaud

    Thank you, Dr. Williams. I’ve been thinking a lot about how white folks’ outrage at this week’s kneeling – and anger at protest in general – is also deeply rooted in the sin of nationalism. When the nation is deified, protest feels like blasphemy. The making of America/the flag into an idol also reduces people living outside human-created borders to subhuman status. White supremacy and nationalism are intertwined systemic sins.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Eric

    I appreciated the way you laid out the whole story instead of part of the story. The information I heard from the media simply focused on kneeling versus standing during the national anthem. When the story as a whole is presented, suddenly a whole new meaning and understanding is formed. Suddenly the story is no longer pride for a country and is now about basic human rights. We need to continue to speak the whole story so that the underlying meaning is not lost, but brought to the forefront especially when it comes to any group which is marginalized.


  8. Megan Casper

    Dear Dr. Williams,

    Thank you so much for this illuminating, inspiring post. I have been reflecting, over the last month, how I will carry the conversations we are having in my Seminary classes, through this blog, and in other forums throughout Chicago, back to my rural, mostly white, lower middle class setting. You’ve so perfectly articulated, for me, the root of the problem. It’s not that Kapernick and other NFL players were being “unpatriotic.” No matter what form of protest one takes, if one is Black or Brown, one will undoubtedly be called every shade and variety of names, including and far worse than unpatriotic or “un-American.” The heart of the problem is white supremacy’s refusal to recognizing the co-humanity of Black and Brown siblings. For some reason, the murder of Tamir Rice always springs to my mind first. I remember my utter horror and shock when I heard that the police had shot a twelve year old boy for something as simple as playing with a pellet gun. I don’t know why this, of all the police murders, hit home for me; but seeing that sweet little face, a face that could be my brother, or any of the children in my rural community who played with toy guns, made my heart utterly sick. Your words drive home for me that when we attempt to strip others of their humanity, it is we, who are the most inhumane. I will do everything in my power as a future pastor to combat this sickening lack of empathy, crushing blindness, and soul-consuming apathy. Thank you for words that remind me of the absolute essential nature of this work; and that will give me the courage to do so, as I prepare for the future.


    Liked by 1 person

  9. AmericinSouthAfrica

    “That is the problem we face, today. Any protest, any perceived effort to move in a direction other than subjection to white supremacy, will be met with vitriol until the greatness of America is no longer tethered to white supremacy.”

    Thank you, Dr. Williams, for drawing parallels of our context to that of our nation’s past. Racism is an inherent sickness that is based on white politics, economics, and education. I am deeply grateful that you name a thing for what it is. White supremacy places a warped sense of reality over the world-view of so many in this country. We should never stop acting and speaking out against those policies and voices that degrade the basic human needs of people of color, especially black lives. All people deserve to have a voice that is listened to and acted upon, not mocked or perceived anything less than legitimate.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Elise Anderson

    Your words and the connections made to the continued fight for civil rights are wonderfully stated. As someone who was an athlete growing up I never gave credit to the stage on which I stood. Granted high school soccer isn’t the NFL but we, as athletes, were often times seen as leaders and trend setters. If the soccer girls started wearing their sweatpants inside out, suddenly everyone started wearing their sweatpants inside out (I wish I could say this didn’t actually happen but it did). While this is a weak comparison to the bravery of these NFL athletes I mention it purely to express that I am so impressed by these athletes, like Kapernick, who are using their platform to send a message and to bring attention to such a crucial issue. It infuriates me that this has gone from a discussion of police brutality to patriotism. Especially in light of the fact that Kapernick was sitting at first, contacted by a former green beret, talked with him about his protest, and was told by this man in the military that if he wanted to make a statement but still show respect for the flag he should kneel. Why isn’t that a story being told? Why is it even about a flag to begin with when actual people are laying dead in the streets for selling CDs, broken taillights, wearing hoodies, taking one step too many, but mostly being a person of color? How can we as a country call ourselves united under one flag and under God when we care more about a piece of fabric than our neighbors lives?

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Alex Witt

    As I think about this kneeling, what strikes me is the claim that kneeling during the anthem is “disrespectful.” I play flag football with LSTC. When I was hurt during a game, everyone kneeled as I was on the ground. I’ve seen a similar thing on TV with NFL games. Many of us kneel in prayer. These things make it clear to me that it isn’t about “respect” (as the claim goes). It is about the very dynamics that you so powerfully discuss in your article. It is about the structures of white supremacism. It is about white people seeing people of color not as “co-humans” worthy of dignity, respect, and life. Thank you for your witness. It is an uncomfortable reminder, not only of the history of racism in this country, but a reminder of the ways in which I benefit and participate from that history.


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