A month before Austin-East’s first football game of the season, principal Nathan Langlois, AD Alvin Armstead, coach Antonio Mays and other members of the administration began talking about what the school could do to make a statement. 

In recent months, thousands showed up across the U.S. to protest police brutality and racism Black people face. Mays brought up playing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” before the game, Langlois said. Everyone agreed on the idea. 

So before Austin-East’s season-opener against Knoxville Webb on Friday, the Black national anthem was played. Then the U.S. national anthem was played, and some players on Austin-East’s team knelt in protest 

“We knew with students coming back to school, we wanted to give them something to be inspired by,” Langlois said. “We wanted to do something to empower our young people.” 

Langlois said Austin-East is planning on playing the Black national anthem before home football games all season.

It was written in 1899 by James Weldon Johnson as a poem. Johnson’s brother, J. Rosamond, then turned it to music, and the song was performed for the first time in 1900. In 1919, the NAACP dubbed the song the Black national anthem, and it has been sung at protests across the country this summer. 

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“I think it’s important because it really talks about the Black struggle in the United States and that we’re not all treated equally,” Langlois said. “We wanted to say the fight for equality continues.

“The African-American experience in the United States is the African American-American experience at Austin-East.” 

Austin-East’s student population is 77% Black, according to U.S. News and World Report, the highest percentage of Black students of any Knox County school. In July, a Black Lives Matter mural was painted on the street in front of the school. 

Langlois cited the disparities in the percentage of Black people and white people killed by police in the United States, and also the disparity in how COVID-19 has affected Black people. 

Black Americans make up less than 13% of the U.S. population but are killed by police at more than double the rate of white Americans, according to the Washington Post’s database of police shootings. 

And, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention weekly COVID-19 data release, Black people have accounted for 22.3% of COVID-19 deaths. 

“It needs to stop,” Langlois said. “As long as those things continue to exist, I think it’s important, and the reason that song is important is so we use our voice to get those things fixed. 

“But until that stops, a song like the Black national anthem shares that struggle, but the song also says that we love our country.” 

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