Glenwood Graduates Take A Knee For Racial Justice
Jaeda Wilson had thought long and hard about it.
She decided she would send an important message on her graduation day.
As the national anthem played during Glenwood Community High School’s belated commencement Aug. 1 at the Glenwood Activities Complex, Wilson opted to take a stand by taking a knee. Wilson kneeled as a peaceful protest against racial injustice and police brutality and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
The actions of Wilson, and a handful of other graduates who also took a knee, comes more than two months after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police spurred widespread protests that have transcended age, race and geography and a kicked off a national dialogue on systemic racism.
Wilson, who later gave the senior class commencement speech that largely avoided politics, said the idea of peacefully protesting had been on her mind for months. Up until the moment she knelt, she wasn’t sure if she’d have the courage.
“I figured I would be one of the few that would kneel and there were only a few of us,” Wilson said. “But I know what I believe and I’m not going to let everybody around me influence that.”
Glenwood Community High School Principal Rick Nickerson was not aware the protest took place until he was asked for comment by The Opinion-Tribune. Nickerson said he has not heard from any parents or fellow administrators about the students’ protests.
“If parents were upset or bothered by it, I would have received e-mails,” Nickerson said. “You telling me about it is the first I’ve heard of it.”
Nickerson said he doesn’t have an issue with the students expressing their first amendment rights nor is there a school district policy against it.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for a young adult to have that chance to exercise that right and I stand by them,” he said.
Nickerson added a “conversation” is likely to happen early in the school year addressing student expression.
Since football player Colin Kaepernick first took a knee during the national anthem at NFL games in 2016, Wilson has educated herself to the plight of racial justice. Taking a knee was an extension of that process.
“As I get older, the more I’ve realized the entire system I think, and a lot other people think, is broken,” she said. “It automatically favors some people over others, especially minorities. And I just felt like taking a knee was a respectful way to protest under the flag because not everybody is equal.”
GCHS Class of 2020 graduate Hayllee Sell also took a knee during the ceremony. She’s always considered herself to be politically active - in school and on social media. And kneeling during the anthem wasn’t her first protest. In June, she took part in a Black Lives Matter march in Omaha.
“I just wanted to show support in any way I could,” Sell said.
Sell had always been aware of racism, but this summer has been an eye opener. Being able to protest is very hard, she said, but being able to take a knee during the national anthem to show her support and to silently protest was easy.
“Everyone should know what’s going on in this country,” she said. “Bringing it to Glenwood and showing them that it is a problem and other people are taking a stand for it, is going to change the way people in Glenwood and the people around us are going to look at the issues.”
Kylyn Anderson said she’s always tried to be an advocate for people of color but only recently did she start educating herself on the issues.
“Even though it’s always been a passion of mine to stand up for the black community, I think with everything happening, it only became stronger in my heart to protest what’s going on,” she said.
Anderson, who wanted to join in protests in Omaha earlier this summer but was denied permission by her mother, said she took a knee at graduation to protest systemic racism and police brutality.
The three GCHS graduates interviewed for this story all spoke about their fear of criticism from parents and other students and a backlash from school administration. All said they hoped their actions wouldn’t be perceived as a disrespect to the military, but rather a silent protest intended to shine a light on an important issue.
While Wilson said she heard no comments personally, Sell said a few classmates did bring it up to her and she explained her reasoning. Some got it, she said, and some didn’t.
“I would rather have them remember me as someone that is trying to change the way this country works instead of being someone who didn’t and just followed the norm,” Sell said. “It feels like what I did was brave.”
Anderson received just one negative comment following her protest. From her father.
“He said he was really disappointed in me,” Anderson said. She comes from a family of military veterans she loves and respects and disrespecting them was never the objective.
“I’m really grateful and cherish them every day for what they did and how they’ve helped this country. Me taking a knee was not to disrespect anybody. It was focused on protesting police brutality.”
Anderson would like to think the protest could be a path to a dialogue with her father – and others – on the issues of racism.
Wilson has the same hope for the Glenwood community, one she calls “not very progressive.”
“I wanted to bring attention to this so we can talk about it more, especially in Glenwood where we have a very low minority population,” she said.
Wilson isn’t sure why of the handful of students who protested in Glenwood, most were girls, but she suspects she and her classmates that took a knee felt a solidarity with the struggle of minorities.
“I think girls are more able to easily understand what it’s like to be marginalized so they are more easily able to empathize,” Wilson said.
Taking a knee at her high school graduation wasn’t Wilson’s first protest and isn’t likely to be her last. Two years ago, she helped organize a school walkout as a protest against gun violence. She’d like to use her activism as a means to encourage schools to incorporate more diverse curriculum to broaden students’ understanding of history and culture.
“I think that’s a really big problem because people don’t realize how bad it was and they don’t think about how this could still be impacting people,” Wilson said of the way slavery has been taught in schools. “They think, ‘Slavery was a hundred years ago, it’s over now.’ But it’s not. Because slavery was the foundation of this country. Racism is built into the country.”
Wilson admits the events of this summer did make her take her activism more seriously. But she’s confident she would have still taken a knee back in May if graduation had been held as scheduled, before the events that unfolded this summer.
“If anything, the quarantine solidified my beliefs even more,” Wilson said. A lot of my friends think the same thing. So even if they didn’t kneel – my family didn’t kneel – I knew they’d still support me for doing what I believe in.”