One Atlanta high school reportedly warned students there would be repercussions if they left class to go protest gun violence, so those students got creative for National Walkout Day. More than 100 students at Booker T. Washington High School took a knee throughout the school's hallways on Wednesday in a show of support for the nationwide action calling for gun reform. Meanwhile, the school, where Martin Luther King, Jr. once walked the halls, was put on lockdown until the protest ended to ensure no one left campus.
School administrators apparently threatened to punish any students who walked out of school on Wednesday, but did allow students to silently take a knee in the hallway. The Guardian reports that school officials told students on Wednesday morning that "anything outside of that is not approved and you will receive swift and severe consequences."
Although they weren't allowed to exit the building, students at the Atlanta high school still joined other young activists in taking a stand against gun violence in response to the Parkland, Florida shooting that killed 17 people on Valentine's Day. One Booker T. Washington student had a message for other students banned from protesting, telling The Guardian's Jamiles Lartey: "Fight. Fight, fight — our words matter. We’re the students of this school. We have a word because we attend this school, this is our home."
The school’s history made students’ determination to protest on Wednesday even more moving. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once attended Booker T. Washington, where he first gained recognition for his public speaking skills that would later propel him into a national icon.
“Please, school leaders, particularly if you lead a school that Dr. Martin Luther King attended, encourage protest and civic engagement instead of blocking it,” writer Shaun King tweeted alongside photos of the Atlanta high schoolers kneeling.
Taking a knee in protest drew inspiration from a more recent civil rights activist — former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. The football player first took a knee during the National Anthem in 2016 to bring awareness to police brutality against people of color. His controversial protest quickly spread to other NFL teams, as well as college and high school football fields (where some students faced similar backlash as those at Booker T. Washington).
Booker T. Washington students told The Guardian they kneeled out of respect for students who have been killed by gun violence.
As Lincoln Anthony Blades points out in Teen Vogue, Black teens were fighting gun violence long before the mass shooting in Parkland. They fought gang violence in the '80s and '90s; they protested alongside Black Lives Matter and the student group Dream Defenders after Trayvon Martin was fatally shot in Florida in 2012; and now they've joined Parkland survivors in working to combat school shootings. As Blades writes:
"Young black activists have been in the streets advocating for gun reform for decades without much attention or mass appeal, but that doesn't mean they don't exist, or that they work without leadership, or that their demands are unclear."
Although the mass shootings that generally grab the nation's attention happen at predominantly white schools, black children are at greater risk of dying from a bullet than white children — 10 times more likely, according to a 2017 report published in Pediatrics journal. So students of color are literally fighting for their lives by protesting gun violence.
High schoolers at Booker T. Washington proved that they won't back down in the face of adversity, but will continue to find ways to ensure their voices are heard by adults and the nation. Sometimes, being heard requires a little creativity.