Members of a South Jersey high school football team knelt during a rendition of the national anthem before a game Saturday to draw attention to social injustices and economic disparities.
Players and coaches from the Woodrow Wilson Tigers carried out the silent demonstration as a recorded version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" played at the team's field in Camden before a match-up against Highland High.
Tigers coach Preston Brown initially planned to take a knee alone and informed his team about the decision Friday. When the anthem played over the PA system Saturday morning, most of his team joined in the protest.
“I am well aware of the third verse of the national anthem which is not usually sung, and I know that the words of the song were not originally meant to include people like me," he told NBC10 Saturday night.
The anthem's third stanza, which is hardly ever performed, reads in part "No refuge could save the hireling and slave / From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave."
That specific section has been cited as a symbol of racial oppression and has been central to high-profile protests by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and other sports stars. The protests have sparked a national debate about freedom of expression and the true meaning of the lyrics and added to the continued debate over racial inequality in America.
Brown told NJ.com, which first reported the story and also recorded video of the demonstration, that he stood for the anthem as a "formality" all his life. He went on to say that he loves America and the military.
Woodrow Wilson's student population is almost exclusively non-white with Hispanics and black students being the most represented respectively, a state census shows.
Two students chose not to kneel, Brown said, adding each student had the right to "exercise what they thought was right."
The Camden City School District agreed with Brown's sentiment. In a statement, spokesman Brendan Lowe said while the district supports standing for the flag, they "strongly respect" students exercising their First Amendment rights.
"Whether our students choose to stand, kneel, or otherwise, we're proud of their engagement with what is more broadly a very important social justice issue."