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.