The opening of last Saturday’s Swarthmore vs. Widener University volleyball match was a powerful sight to witness: As the first notes of the “Star-Spangled Banner” played through the speakers of the Lamb-Miller Field House, a swarm of students, all dressed in black, flooded out of the stands and kneeled on the ground. Out on the court, Swarthmore volleyball players held hands, many taking a knee.
This protest was a community call to action, as well as a gesture of support and allyship for players Lelosa Aimufua ‘20 and Emma Morgan-Bennett ‘20. Aimufua and Morgan-Bennett kneeled during the anthem for the first time during the Fall 2016 volleyball season, shortly after the election of President Trump. Aimufua and Morgan-Bennett wished to express their frustration with longstanding racial injustices in conjunction with Trump’s election, a result they both described as “white supremacy winning according to America.”
Aimufua and Morgan-Bennett’s solitary act in the fall of 2016 evolved into the Swarthmore community’s larger-scale protest on Saturday due, in part, to Trump’s inflammatory statements last week about NFL players who kneel during the national anthem. Since Trump’s speech, athletes at all levels have been taking a knee during the anthem or expressing support for the gesture.
Many have criticized these athletes for bringing politics into what these people believe ought to be an apolitical space. By contrast, Morgan-Bennett and Aimufua emphasize that professional and student athletes of color have a right to speak out on political issues.
“Us kneeling is utilizing our free speech and refusing to be viewed as just black bodies on the court, which I think is an incredibly problematic environment to take part in,” Morgan-Bennett said. “For us to not have space to say ‘we are athletes but we are also people of color, we are also people with individual convictions and people with political beliefs and ethical compasses’– that’s where we have to say ‘sports and politics are distant, yes, but they’re not mutually exclusive.’”
In a statement published on Friday in The Daily Gazette, Aimufua and Morgan-Bennett invited members of the Swarthmore community to kneel at Swarthmore volleyball games and at other athletic events. “Only when we address the disease of white supremacy and racial injustice, can we truly become, as our anthem states, the land of the free,” they wrote. “We invite all athletes and spectators to express solidarity with a movement that believes America can do better.”
As the last notes of “The Star Spangled Banner” faded Saturday morning, the spectators erupted into cheers. Annie Slappy ‘20, who organized a Facebook event for the protest, stood up in front of the crowd of supporters and gave a rousing speech: “We’re here. It doesn’t matter what they think we did. We did it.”
Zara Williams-Nicholas ‘19 described the moment that she kneeled as “nerve-wracking,” but said that in that moment she felt she was “part of something bigger.”
“Although at Swarthmore [overt violence] doesn’t happen as often … there’s still racism here that gets swept under the rug and doesn’t get talked about,” said Williams-Nicholas. “Even though we’re in an isolated space, it’s still important to come out to these causes, whether you are black or you’re an ally to the black cause, which everyone should be.”
Professor of Sociology Sarah Willie-LeBreton also attended the game. Willie-LeBreton, who also teaches courses within the Black Studies Program, hopes that the greater Swarthmore community will seriously reflect on this protest.
“All protests are experienced differently by people in large part because of their lives and experiences,” she wrote in an email to The Daily Gazette. “The challenge for me whenever I encounter protest that I have not begun, is to remain open to the possibility that I have something to learn. I hope that more members of the Swarthmore College community begin to ask why the protest at the National Anthem resonates with so many student-athletes.”
Not only did spectators show up in droves to engage in the protest this weekend, many other athletes kneeled in solidarity for the first time.
On the volleyball team, nearly all players kneeled during the anthem. “I kneel because to me racism is the biggest problem in our country right now and that takes priority for me over any other issue,” said co-captain Olivia Leventhal ‘18, who kneeled in allyship. “By my kneeling I’m not disrespecting the United States; I’m just saying that there’s a problem with the laws that are in place and how people are treated for their race.”
At other games this weekend, Swarthmore athletes engaged in protest, including members of the women’s soccer team who kneeled during the anthem at their Sunday match against Franklin & Marshall. Morgan-Bennett commended these other protests in a statement: “The above responses demonstrate that our stance, although risky, has resulted in beginning difficult conversations and taking concrete steps towards change; that’s all we ever could have desired.”
Swarthmore volleyball went on to win the match handily, crushing Widener in just three sets. But in the eyes of Aimufua and Morgan-Bennett, the game was a larger victory for social justice.
“This past Saturday I was blown away by how many students came to support us in our action,
Morgan-Bennett wrote in a statement to The Daily Gazette. “Given the fact that it was early and Saturday morning, my expectations weren’t very high about what the turnout would be. But when I saw so many of my friends (and even people who I had never spoken to before), I felt safe and comfortable. Fundamentally, that’s what this protest aims towards– black and brown Americans living without fear of violence and with the protections of love. I am greatly encouraged by the conversations that have started due to our community’s action.”
In a separate statement, Aimufua conveyed her pride at how their protest had transformed into what she described as “a community call to action”:
“On Saturday, I wasn’t sure if people were going to show up again to kneel. I didn’t even know if my own teammates would kneel again. I couldn’t be happier to know that not only did even more people show up to our game to kneel, dressed in all black to make a loud and effective protest, but my teammates continued to kneel, some even kneeling for the first time that morning.
“In a time of so much disarray and disunity, I’ve never felt safer and more loved by my community. And now I am positive that I can’t stop kneeling. I won’t stop until I am proud to stand. I won’t stop until America reaches her full potential as a country. I won’t stop until we are all truly free and equal.
“I hope Emma’s and my deeply personal protest continues to grow so that everyone in our community can be reflective of the state of our country and what they can do to change it. I want people to stop turning a blind eye to the injustices that continuously occur in our country due to our history and endorsement of white supremacy, systematic oppression, and the inhumane treatment of black and brown bodies.
“I kneel because I love America, even when America doesn’t show me love back.”
Lelosa and Emma will be kneeling at all of their home and away games this season. The Swarthmore women’s volleyball game schedule can be found here.
Special thanks to Lindsey Norward ’18, who contributed to this article.