Black Cheerleaders and A Long History of Protest

Virginia State University Woo Woos Cheerleaders (Photo: Kevin Coles, Flickr).

In November 2018, Kayla Morris, a member of the San Francisco 49ers’s Gold Rush cheerleading squad, became the first NFL cheerleader to take a knee during the playing of the national anthem. Her protest follows in the footsteps of former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who began kneeling during the anthem to protest police brutality in 2016. While Morris may be the first NFL cheerleader to join in protest, college and high school cheerleaders have knelt in solidarity for the last two years. Indeed, Morris and the other cheerleaders who choose to kneel are part of a longer history of protest by and about Black cheerleaders.

In April 1969, a group of 200 Black Americans gathered in front of West Senior High School in Rockford, Illinois, to protest discrimination at the school. Among the signs they carried was one that said “Black Cheerleaders to Cheer Too.” While the sign may have seemed out of place, alongside other signs such as “Black history with Black Teachers” and “Equal Rights, Negro Counselors,” it represented a historically overlooked yet widespread critique of schools in the wake of integration. From the 1950s to the mid-1970s, Black high school and college students, athletes and non-athletes, parents, and community members pushed for the inclusion of Black cheerleaders in schools across the country.

During the 1950s and early 1960s, high school students and their parents relied on a variety of protest tactics to “take a strong stand to secure a Negro cheerleader(s),” including appealing to local school boards and direct-action protest. In Pennsylvania, Black families from multiple townships utilized support from local NAACP chapters to threaten legal action against schools that failed to integrate cheer squads. Eighty juniors at Rankin High School staged a walk-out followed by a two-day strike to protest homework requirements and “inform school officials that they resented the fact that school did not have any Negro Cheerleaders or Majorettes.” The students’ parents then took the issue to the school board and forced action by the superintendent.1

Similarly, over 200 Black students walked out of Argo Community High School outside of Chicago, Illinois, in the late 1960s after demanding that half of the cheerleaders be Black. In nearby Madison, Wisconsin, seventeen Black football players were kicked off their high school team for skipping practice in protest of the lack of Black cheerleaders. In response to their dismissal, nearly 1300 Black students boycotted public schools for a week until the school board voted to reinstate the players and mandated that half of the cheerleaders had to be Black the following season.2

The issue of Black cheerleaders became an important tool of institutional critique for three main reasons. First, this critique targeted the gendered constraints of integration that valued Black male athletic bodies and created early avenues for school integration that were rarely open to Black girls. As one student from Gastonia, North Carolina noted during a student walk out, “They want our boys to play on their teams and win the games for them but they don’t want our girls to cheer for them.”3

Secondly, protests around Black cheerleaders became conduits for larger arguments about the dearth of Black professionals in the schools, Black administrators, Black coaches, and Black students in a variety of extracurricular activities. When a protest about Black cheerleaders threatened to close down Rome High School in Georgia, school officials not only agreed to integrate the cheerleading squad but also added Black students to the student council, Black faculty members, and integrated the coaching staff.

Protests about Black cheerleaders could quickly morph into larger demonstrations against white supremacy and racial injustice. In 1969 students protested at the newly integrated Walter Williams High School in Burlington, North Carolina, after a Black girl was refused a spot on the cheerleading team. The protest soon grew to include students at nearby Jordan-Sellers High School and local colleges. Events escalated following a fight between white and Black students and the Governor’s subsequent declaration of a state of emergency. At the end of the second day of protesting, many stores were on fire, the National Guard and local police had escalated the violence, and a 15-year-old Black boy lay dead, unarmed and riddled with gun shots.

While the Burlington case is exceptional because of the resulting violence, it illustrates that Black cheerleaders galvanized not only those who sought racial justice but also those who opposed integration. Indeed, in St. Petersburg, Florida, a Holiday Bowl game for the small college football championship was eventually relocated because the city was staunchly segregationist. Despite the bowl game being financially lucrative and the presence of Black players already being established, it was the inclusion of Black cheerleaders that led the city to protest the integrated bowl game.

Finally, protests about Black cheerleaders allowed students and parents to critique integration itself, which required them to conform to white styles of cheerleading. Black cheerleading emphasized rhythmic movements, stomping, clapping and “soul-swinging.” Calls for Black cheerleaders were equally about not having to assimilate to a one-sided integration that devalued their Black aesthetic and cultural expression. As one protesting cheerleader, Priscilla Lindy, stated: “We’re black, we’re proud and we are out here to get our demands.”

Black women and girls turned to cheerleading in part because it gave them access to the sporting sphere in ways other sports did now allow. Rutgers Women’s Basketball Coach C. Vivian Stringer, who recently became only the 7th Division 1 coach to notch 1000 wins and who sued her high school to become one of the first Black cheerleaders in the 1960s said, “I never wanted to be a cheerleader for the sake of being a cheerleader. I wanted to be on the sidelines to I could encourage the boys to do what they need to do. What I was really doing was taking one step closer to coaching.”

Protests for Black cheerleaders largely occurred at post-secondary schools in the late 1960s and early 1970s during the “revolt of the Black athlete,” when Black male athletes at colleges such as University of California, University of Kansas, New York University, and University of Texas- El Paso, demanded improved treatment by schools and coaches. Black sportswriter John Henry Johnson noted that in “almost every case the black athlete is fighting the trivial (black cheerleaders) and the significant (black coaches).”4 While Johnson viewed the repeated demands for Black cheerleaders as “trivial,” the athletes themselves mirrored critiques the high schoolers made by using Black cheerleaders to articulate the limits of integration.

For Black men on predominately white campuses, the recruit of Black women through cheerleading—in absence of other sporting opportunities—was also a priority both for young men looking to date and schools like University of Wyoming where they actively recruited Black women to attend alongside Black football players in an attempt to prevent interracial dating. At other campuses calls for Black cheerleaders also occurred as Black college students protested for Black Studies programs, Black faculty, and equitable access to extracurricular spaces.

Alongside the “revolt of the Black athlete,” Black college cheerleaders also used their platforms to protest. In 1968, following Tommie Smith’s and John Carlos’s Olympic protest two Black male cheerleaders at Yale raised Black fists before the Yale v. Dartmouth football game. A group of Black cheerleaders at Northern Illinois University walked off a basketball court during the anthem in 1973 to protest the plight of Black students. At West Virginia University, Johanna Bryant along with another teammate was forced from the squad over refusing to “be respectful” to the flag and raising their fists during the national anthem.

Black cheerleaders often refused to cheer for schools who waved the Confederate flag, played “Dixie,” or were named any variation of the “Rebels.” As the first Black Ole Miss cheerleader John Hawkins noted, “It has not been written anywhere that an Ole Miss Cheerleader has to wave a flag…I may be an Old Miss Cheerleader but I’m still a black man…I know what the rebel flag presents…[and] I prefer not to wave one.”

When Kayla Morris knelt earlier this year she joined in a longer but hidden history of Black cheerleaders demonstrating for change, and she did so from a particularly vulnerable position. While the NFL is majority African American, its cheerleading squads are still overwhelming white. One former NFL cheerleader cited this as another reason many choose not to kneel, saying “it would be hard to be the only one.”

Black college cheerleaders continue to kneel, including cheerleaders from Georgia Tech, Southern Illinois University, Kennesaw State University, and Howard University. These cheerleaders have faced a number of reprisals for their protest activities. Kneelers from Kennesaw State and Southern Illinois have been dismissed from their respective teams. But punishment is not a deterrent to some. In the case of Howard University, cheerleaders continue to protest. Howard’s squad has been protesting for two years now and they show no sign of stopping. As cheerleader Sydney Stallworth notes, “injustice is still happening, we will keep kneeling until we see a change.”

  1.  “No German High Cheer Leader this Year,” Pittsburgh Courier, November 7, 1953; “German Twp. High To Have Cheerleader,” Pittsburgh Courier, November 6, 1954; “Clairton School Board Criticized for Tactics Used to Bar Negro Majorettes,” Pittsburgh Courier, September 24, 1960; “Reforms Promised, as School Strike Ends!” Pittsburgh Courier, October 18, 1958.
  2.  “200 Negroes Walk Out at Argo School,” Chicago Tribune, September 6, 1968”; “Cheerleader Dispute is Settled; School Boycott in Illinois to End” New York Times, November 20 1967.
  3. “All-White Cheerleader Team Causes Walk Out,” New Journal and Guide, May 10, 1969.
  4.  John Henry Johnson, “Off-Guard: The Revolt of the Black Athlete,” New Pittsburgh Courier, March 31, 1973; “Black Athletes Boycott OU Charge Racialism, Bias,” Chicago Defender, May 9, 1968; “Negro Athletes Threaten Boycott at Major Colleges,” New York Times, May 19 1968; “Negro Athletes Spark Uproar at U. Of Wyoming,” New York Times, November 1, 1969.
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Amira Rose Davis

Amira Rose Davis is an Assistant Professor of History and Women’s Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Penn State University, and the Co-Host of the feminist sports podcast, Burn It All Down. She specializes in 20th Century American History with an emphasis on race, gender, sports and politics. She is currently working on a book manuscript on Black Women Athletes in the Age of Jim Crow. Follow her on Twitter @mirarose88.