At Howard University’s stadium-packed football games, the Bison cheerleading squad pulses with the heartbeat of school spirit ripened over 150 years. Each cheerleader’s face is delicately contoured with makeup and their signature red, white and blue uniforms are crisp. And while the cheer team executes their mission, which is buoying the football players and eliciting excitement from the crowd, they also take a powerful, non-verbal political stance before the merriment begins. For the past year the team of young women have taken a knee to protest oppression and racial injustice during the national anthem.

Howard University Cheerleaders

In 2016, shortly after NFL standout Colin Kaepernick bucked tradition and began kneeling as the “Star-Spangled Banner” played, the cheerleading squad followed suit. Kaepernick first knelt to protest police brutality, namely the killing of dozens of unarmed Blacks. And while the cheerleaders have been kneeling for a year now, their brand of activism only recently drew attention outside of the Howard University community. The football team does not take a knee during the anthem.

Daniel Moss is the chief people person for HBCU Connect, a first-of-its-kind social network for HBCU graduates founded in 1999. He said the cheerleaders are continuing a tradition of activism that is an intrinsic part of the Black college tradition.

“I think HBCU culture has played a large part in keeping the spirit of necessary protest alive when they are at their best. At their worst, any schools, often under the direction of their timid leadership, they follow and are looking for cues to give an indication that it may be safe to join a level of protest,” Moss told the AFRO. “The barriers of protest in the African-American community and communities of color has been an ongoing one for decades. And because of that, many of the protests go unrecognized or outright muted by media platforms that would otherwise cover them. Young, African-American female cheerleaders participating at an HBCU may not raise the attention from folks in the same way that gentlemen who share the platform of the NFL do and the breadth of reach that offers and provides.”

The school has traditionally played “Lift Every Voice” – dubbed the Black national anthem – before switching to the national anthem. According to the New York Times, the Howard cheerleaders, the band’s dancers and a slew of attendees balled their fists and raised their arms in the decades-old Black Power salute at a recent football game. As the song concluded, the cheerleaders knelt one at a time.

“I think about the national anthem and what it stands for,” team captain Sydney Stallworth, a junior from Odessa, Fla., told the New York Times.  “I think about liberty and justice for all, and how it’s not being executed in our country right now. And I think about how lucky I am to go to the greatest historically Black university in the country — not arguably; it’s the greatest — and so lucky to have this platform.”

Howard has a storied history of activism. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the university’s students fought Jim Crow laws in the first half of the 20th century and held public demonstrations in support of anti-lynching laws.

“I am all for the Howard University cheerleaders – and anyone else – who chooses to use their public platform to kneel during the national anthem. As so many in opposition have failed to realize, kneeling is protest it is not anti-American, unpatriotic or in any way a disrespect to the flag,” Danielle Demming, a 2006 Howard graduate, told the AFRO.  “Kneeling in protest, in fact, epitomizes the very freedom that the aforementioned symbols are supposed to stand for.”

The “Star-Spangled Banner” is not without controversy itself. Some Americans are unaware of the song’s third stanza, which was written by Francis Scott Key. According to Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root and professor of political science at Morgan State University, Key wrote an entire passage railing against former slaves who abandoned all allegiance to the United States and began working for the British army.

Historical implications aside, the root cause of the team’s decision to kneel remains a polarizing and continuous problem in the U.S. According to mappingpoliceviolence.org, a research collaborative that collects data on police killings nationwide, police have killed 931 people this year. Of this, the collaborative reports, 23 percent were Black. Blacks make up roughly 13 percent of the U.S. population.

On Oct. 16, Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) leader Cedric Richmond (D-La.) penned a tersely written open letter to NFL commissioners. In it, he summed up Kaepernick’s fundamental reasons for taking a knee and perhaps captured the resounding sentiments the Bison’s cheerleading team wish to convey.

“For African Americans, it is not about standing, sitting, or kneeling for the National Anthem―it is about unarmed African Americans lying in a grave who were shot and killed by police officers,” Richmond wrote. “It is also about a justice system that says that encountering a Black person is enough reason for a police officer to fear for his or her life.”