As my husband continues to remind me, we are only a few days away from the start of a new football season. And usually I’m wholly uninterested in what goes on on the field. And I still am. But I am now highly interested in what goes on off the field. With a new football season, comes new questions about how the ongoing debate about players protesting racial injustice will be handled. Will they continue to protest? Yes. Will they get in trouble? Probably. Will Trump say something offensive on a semi-regular basis about it without any reference to the actual problems they are highlighting? Definitely.
During the Trump presidency, especially, activism among black athletes has intensified. Just in the past year, the SuperBowl champion Philadelphia Eagles were uninvited from White House after some players said they wouldn’t attend. The stars of the two NBA finalist teams, Lebron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors, both said they wouldn’t go to the White House if their team won. When Lebron later “talked politics” in a TV interview, Fox host Laura Ingraham told him he should “shut up and dribble.”
Side note: Lebron just announced that he is creating a Showtime docu-series that is going to explore exactly what today’s episode hopes to introduce: the role of athletes as activists. The name of the series? “Shut up and Dribble.”
On today’s episode, we’ll look at various theories on protest before diving into the rich history of black athletes speaking out on black issues that have come long before Colin Kaepernick sat on the bench during the National Anthem.
This is Anti-Social Studies; I’m Emily Glankler; settle in and let’s get some historical context…
Act 1: The Boycott or the Bullet
If you are being oppressed, what do you do? How do you raise awareness and get support for your cause? Is violent protest ever appropriate? Does nonviolence actually work? How did the Civil Rights Movement do it? Should we still be doing it that way in 2018?
Now, this is a huge topic and there are a lot of competing theories about how to effectively resist oppression. Check out my last episode’s discussion on Booker T. Washington vs. W.E.B. Du Bois vs. T’Challa. But for today, I want to focus on probably the two most famous Americans that epitomize the two main sides of this debate.
On one side, we have Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. You know him. He had a dream; Gandhi was there and told him not to be violent. Dr. King’s big idea was civil disobedience: break the law peacefully. Never resort to violence, even if violence is committed against you. Think about how hard of an “ask” that is, especially to a community who has been enslaved, then disenfranchised, lynched, and oppressed for centuries. Take the high road – be better than your enemy; and more than that, love your enemy. We’re from the future and we know that it worked so we don’t think about how radical that is. But whoa.
Now, we typically teach the Civil Rights Movement as the “MLK Show.” I get it – he was a huge part of this movement and deserves the attention. But, this is misleading because it makes us believe that Dr. King was THE voice of the movement. In reality, he was A voice of the movement – a really important voice, obviously, but just one.
Another voice that was critical to the Civil Rights Movement was also highly critical of Dr. King – see what I did there? Malcolm X disagreed with MLK. He didn’t believe in violence for the sake of violence; but he did believe that violence should be “on the table” as a possible tool for African Americans. One of his most famous speeches, “The Ballot or the Bullet,” basically tells the government: the ball’s in your court. You can guarantee our rights and our full equality – give us the ballot – or you can take the bullet.
Today, Malcolm X is often vilified or, possibly worse, ignored by US History textbooks. He typically serves as the character foil to our protagonist: Dr. King. I understand why people fall into this trap – and to some extent, that’s a really effective way to understand each of these men. But it really diminishes Malcolm X’s legacy. There were a lot of African Americans who like his message better than Dr. King’s. They were frustrated about being told to turn the other cheek, sit down and take it, from white racists as they burned crosses in their front yard and bombed their homes.
Both men had the same goal: to achieve full civil rights for African Americans. They met only once as they both attended a Senate debate on the 1964 Civil Rights Act. They were both assassinated within four years of that meeting. So how did these two men come to have such different approaches to protest?
Martin Luther King was raised in the middle-class Sweet Auburn neighborhood of Atlanta. His father a pastor and his mother a schoolteacher, his dad – Martin Luther King Sr. – was an early leader in the Civil Rights Movement, heading up the NAACP chapter in Atlanta. King went to Morehouse College when he was just 15 years old. He later attended seminary in Pennsylvania and eventually earned his doctorate in systematic theology in Boston where he met his future wife: a young singer, also from Atlanta, named Coretta Scott.
In some ways, Malcolm Little had many similarities with King. (Malcolm Little was Malcolm X’s birth name. He changed his last name to “X” to symbolize his lost African name that was changed when his ancestors were enslaved.) His father was a lay preacher and also active in the early civil rights movement. Both Martin and Malcolm were gifted speakers. King was elected president of his predominately white senior class at seminary while Malcolm was elected class president at his high school. But their differences are more telling than their similarities.
First, whereas King’s father was active in the more moderate NAACP, Malcolm’s father was a leader in the Universal Negro Improvement Association. If you remember from last episode, this was the brainchild of black nationalist Marcus Garvey. He believed that black people should stop relying on white people to change their situation – they needed to take matters into their own hands.
Malcolm’s childhood in general was dramatically different than Martin’s. He was the 4th of 8 children and his father, Earl Little, was hunted by white supremacists to the point that he moved his family around, eventually ending up in Michigan. But even in the north, a racist mob set their house on fire when Malcolm was only 4 years old and, as he tells it, “”The white police and firemen came and stood around watching as the house burned to the ground.” His father moved the family again but just two years later, Malcolm’s father’s body was found on the municipal streetcar tracks.
Even though many believed a splinter group of the KKK called the Black Legion murdered Earl, the city officially ruled his death a streetcar accident, making it impossible for his family to receive the large life insurance policy Malcolm’s father had purchased in order to provide for his family in the event of his death. Never recovering from her grief, Malcolm’s mother was committed to a mental institution when he was 12. Malcolm was separated from his siblings and placed in foster care.
As a child, he was incredibly bright but when he told his English teacher he wanted to go to law school, their reaction was that he should be more “realistic” and consider a job in carpentry, instead. At that point, Malcolm was like, “Screw this. I’m dropping out.” So he did.
He moved to Boston where his half sister lived and he fell into a world of drugs, gambling, and crime. Sentenced to 10 years in prison, Malcolm read as many books from the prison library as he could and eventually found the Nation of Islam – a small branch of black Muslims who used their faith to also support black nationalism. Even though he eventually left the more radical Nation of Islam to become a mainstream Sunni Muslim, this is just one more step in his life that causes Malcolm to feel, and be perceived as, an “other” in American society. While King adheres to many “typical” American values – especially Christianity – Malcolm is viewed as more foreign, more dangerous.
So it should be easy to see how each man came to his own, very different, conclusion about how to achieve civil rights. King, heavily influenced by his Christianity and faith in Jesus Christ, turned to love and peace. He believed that if black people loved their enemy and “turned the other cheek,” only then would true reconciliation and equality with the powerful white majority come about.
But it should be easy to see now why that argument might not work with Malcolm. Even though Dr. King also experienced intense oppression throughout his life, Malcolm had deeply personal experiences with racism. When his mother was pregnant with him, the KKK stormed their house with guns trying to find his father. He has known nothing but violence at the hands of white people. So why should they turn the other cheek?
It’s easy to paint King as nonviolent and Malcolm as violent, but that’s not right. Malcolm wasn’t violent for the sake of violence. He just didn’t think it was prudent to rule out violence as a tactic for African Americans fighting for civil rights. As he saw it, the South used violence against the United States to fight for their states’ rights to own slaves – why shouldn’t black people be able to use violence to fight for equality?
If you have the time, I really encourage you to listen to a speech by Malcolm X. He is an incredible – seriously, incredible – speaker. I listen to his speech “The Ballot or the Bullet” with my students every year and still, every time, his words spark a heated passion in my chest that makes me want to go and fight oppression at every turn. And I’m a privileged white girl from the suburbs! I can’t even imagine how it must have felt to be an African American in the room listening to Malcolm preach about the importance of black communities lifting each other up, creating economic independence free from white control and, yes, using force if necessary.
Unfortunately, another similarity in the lives of Martin and Malcolm is the fact that they both were assassinated. After taking the Hajj, or the pilgrimage to Mecca, and learning from the peaceful rhetoric of the Qur’an, Malcolm became more optimistic about the prospects of peaceful reconciliation for America’s race problems. He even said that America could be the first country to “have a bloodless revolution.” This movement toward peaceful resolution made him gravitate away from the Nation of Islam, which angered some of its members. He was shot and killed by radical black Muslims while giving a speech in New York City in 1965. Just 3 years later, Martin Luther King was shot by James Earl Ray, a white supporter of segregation, at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.
So the question remains, which approach worked? Was it King’s civil disobedience or Malcolm’s “violence if necessary”? On the surface, Dr. King’s philosophy won out. The boycotts, marches, Freedom Riders, and sit-ins of the 1950s and 60s all conformed to King’s vision of civil rights protest.
However, I would like to propose a theory: that King’s nonviolence would never have been as effective without the threat or possibility of Malcolm’s violence. Here’s what I mean by this: the epic legislation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were passed as Malcolm was gaining national attention before his death. I would argue that the threat of a turn toward a more aggressive approach for the Civil Rights Movement spurred many white moderates to push for legislation in order to avoid an all-out black revolution. It’s important to remember that Dr. King was not beloved by all in the 1960 – in fact, many saw him as dangerous to American society – but he was undeniably better than Malcolm, in the eyes of the white majority. So, would presidents and senators have given as much attention to King’s ideas if they hadn’t been worried that neglect might push more African Americans into the arms of a radical like Malcolm? I don’t know.
But no matter what you’re own personal beliefs are about various forms of protest and the possibility of violence, Martin and Malcolm set the stage for modern discussions about the voice of oppressed people in the U.S. and around the world. And who would have thought that the arena where these philosophies would play out in the future would be the world of sports?
Act 2: Athletic Activists
Black athletes have been an important voice for the African American community for decades. Think about it: in a century of segregation, oppression, and limited opportunities for advancement, sports was one of the earliest arenas where black people got a relatively fair shot. Compared with the corporate world or politics, sports is a meritocracy – the best player makes the team. Obviously there was rampant discrimination in the sporting world, too, but black athletes broke through the color barrier earlier than in other industries. Because of that, athletes were some of the first black celebrities to create wealth, fame, and, thus, a voice for themselves in general American society.
Jackie Robinson broke the so-called “color barrier” when he became the first African American to play Major League Baseball, joining the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 – of course it was Brooklyn. Those hipsters are always trying to one up the rest of us. After retirement, Robinson became active in the Civil Rights Movement, especially in a regular column he wrote for the New York Post. He publicly called out political leaders, especially JFK – whom he saw as making too many compromises with white southern segregationists. When Kennedy got visibly angry over steel tariffs, Jackie Robinson criticized him for getting more emotional about the steel industry than black oppression in his country. “Why Mr. President,” he wrote, “Why don’t you get angry again?”
Throughout the 1960s, other athletes – many of them still competitive in their respective sports – became some of the leading voices in the Civil Rights Movement. Boxer Muhammad Ali famously refused to be drafted into the military in protest of both black oppression and the Vietnam War. Cassius Clay had changed his name to Muhammad Ali – evoking two of the most important early Islamic leaders in history, Muhammad the prophet, and Ali his cousin – when he joined the Nation of Islam. He had actually been recruited and mentored by none other than Malcolm X himself.
On being drafted into military service, Muhammad Ali said, “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs? . . . If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to twenty-two million of my people, they wouldn’t have to draft me. I’d join tomorrow.”
At 25, Muhammad Ali was sentenced to five years in prison, stripped of his championship title, and his boxing license was suspended. His conviction was later overturned but he was hated by many in the white majority across the country. Sports Illustrated ran an editorial calling him a “demagogue,” a popular TV host called him “a disgrace to his country.” Even Jackie Robinson criticized Ali’s actions saying, “He’s hurting, I think, the morale of a lot of young Negro soldiers over in Vietnam,” Robinson said. “And the tragedy to me is, Cassius has made millions of dollars off of the American public, and now he’s not willing to show his appreciation to a country that’s giving him, in my view, a fantastic opportunity.” We’re hearing almost identical arguments today about Colin Kaepernick.
One year later, in 1968, the Olympics were held in Mexico City. First off, 1968 was an insane year in U.S. History. Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy, the apparent Democratic candidate for president, were both assassinated within two months of each other. The Tet Offensive had escalated the Vietnam War, while strikes and other protests for racial and gender equality were almost constant at home.
Some black athletes got together in an attempt to boycott the Olympic Games to raise awareness about the treatment of African Americans in the U.S. but it never fully came together. Notably, O.J. Simpson – Heisman Trophy winner, world-record holding track star, and arguably the most famous black athlete at the time – refused to join the boycott. Speaking about black political activism he famously said, “I’m not black. I’m O.J.”
Although the boycott never got off the ground, the most famous image of those Olympic Games would be two black American sprinters on the podium, holding their black-gloved fists in the air as the National Anthem plays.
This was a carefully thought out decision. As Tommie Smith and John Carlos walked to the podium, they took off their shoes to protest poverty. They wore beads and a scarf to protest lynchings. And when the national anthem was played, they lowered their heads in a show of mourning and raised their fists in a Black Power salute that rocked the world.
John Carlos later explained that he had decided to unzip his Olympic jacket, in defiance of Olympic etiquette, but in support of “all the working-class people — black and white — in Harlem who had to struggle and work with their hands all day.” He had also deliberately covered up the “USA” on his uniform with a black T-shirt to “reflect the shame I felt that my country was traveling at a snail’s pace toward something that should be obvious to all people of good will. Then the anthem started and we raised our fists into the air.”
Smith and Carlos were suspended from the US track & field team and immediately kicked out of the Olympic Village. The International Olympic Committee called the protest, “a deliberate and violent breach of the fundamental principles of the Olympic spirit.” Side note: the IOC was led in 1968 by the same man who was in charge in 1936 – when they allowed the Olympic Games to be held in Nazi Germany. I guess they didn’t have an issue with the Nazi salute – just the Black Power fist. That’s reasonable.
As the 1960s came to a close and the nation sunk down, exhausted, into the 1970s, athlete activism also declined. For one, the Civil Rights Movement lost steam after 1968. But also, as the world of sports became more heavily corporatized – with sponsorships and a celebrity’s “brand” to consider, athletes were disincentivized from speaking out on divisive issues.
For example, in 1992, when Michael Jordan was asked to support a black Democratic candidate running for the U.S. Senate in his college state of North Carolina – Go Tar Heels! – he declined, saying, “Republicans buy sneakers too.”
It’s important to note that for the last generation or two, the nation has gotten used to its athletes being typically loud on advertising and quiet on political issues. People are perfectly comfortable seeing athletes pushing McDonald’s cheeseburgers and Coca Cola – breakfast of champions – but it’s been rare to hear an athlete contribute to a larger, more impactful, national conversation.
Of course this has changed in the past few years and it’s freaking some people out. Whatever your thoughts are on the current protests and political statements by athletes, it’s important to understand that this is not new. Black athletes, especially, have a long and rich history of speaking up on issues facing their community – they took a break in the 80s and 90s to make some money selling shoes – but now they’re back. They’re picking up where athletes like Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith, and John Carlos left off – instead of black gloves they have Twitter open on their iPhone. And instead of standing on a podium, they’re taking a knee.
Act 3: The Kaepernick Effect
What has sparked this new generation of black athlete activists? In short, the Black Lives Matter movement. Now, I am in no way equipped to be the voice of the Black Lives Matter movement and I’m not going to attempt to cover all of their claims and goals in such a short amount of time. In a nutshell, the movement began in response to the deaths of black people, mostly young unarmed men, at the hands of police. For some more context, let me read to you how the group defines itself on their website – keeping in mind that the group is, by design, very localized and community-driven. Meaning, this description might not apply to everyone who identifies as part of the movement, but it covers the majority:
“Black Lives Matter began as a call to action in response to state-sanctioned violence and anti-Black racism. Our intention from the very beginning was to connect Black people from all over the world who have a shared desire for justice to act together in their communities. The impetus for that commitment was, and still is, the rampant and deliberate violence inflicted on us by the state.”
First, Colin Kaepernick was not the first nor the only athlete to protest injustices against black people in the United States. In 2012, Lebron James, Dwayne Wade, and other NBA players word hoodies partially covering their faces in a social media post to protest the killing of unarmed Trayvon Martin, who was wearing a hoodie when he was killed by a neighborhood watchperson. Two years earlier, the Phoenix Suns and San Antonio Spurs wore jerseys with their team name in Spanish to show support for immigrant communities in their states.
In 2014, five St. Louis Rams players protested the decision not to indict the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown by walking onto the field with their hands raised in the air, in reference to the claim by some observers that Brown had his hands up when he was shot. Although the St. Louis Police Officer’s Association demanded the NFL discipline the players, they were not fined because the team said they were exercising their freedom of speech.
But the most lasting protest, so far, began in 2016 when Colin Kaepernick sat on the bench during the National Anthem. No one even noticed until the third game at which point Kaepernick explained himself.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick initially said of his protest. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
After a backlash from groups saying it was disrespectful to veterans to sit during the National Anthem, Kaepernick and a teammate, Eric Reid, met with former pro football player and Green Beret Nate Boyer. At the meeting, the three men did what no one in our government or news industry seems to be able to do – they sat down and had a respectful, rational conversation about their different perspectives and came to a compromise. Out of that meeting, Kaepernick and Reid decided to kneel instead. He explained:
“We were talking to [Boyer] about how can we get the message back on track and not take away from the military, not take away from fighting for our country, but keep the focus on what the issues really are. And as we talked about it, we came up with taking a knee. Because there are issues that still need to be addressed and it was also a way to show more respect to the men and women who fight for this country.”
They’ve explained the decision to kneel as someone showing respect for an injured player on the field. Essentially, they believe the United States is injured and the decision to kneel comes from a place of respect and patriotism. Of course, not everyone sees it that way.
Other NFL players followed suit, as well as professional and amateur athletes across the country. Then-president Barack Obama notably did not come out in full support of the movement, which many activists were hoping for from the first black president.
His response tiptoed between both sides, saying, “I want Mr. Kaepernick and others who are on a knee, I want them to to listen to the pain that that may cause somebody who, for example, had a spouse or a child who was killed in combat and why it hurts them to see somebody not standing. But I also want people to think about the pain he may be expressing about somebody who’s lost a loved one that they think was unfairly shot.”
President Trump has taken a stronger stance, to say the least. At a rally, he stated, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’”
It was at this point, after the “son of a bitch” speech, that the NFL seemed – for a brief moment – to unite in support of their players. That next week, entire teams knelt or held hands in solidarity, even some team owners. But that didn’t last long. Houston Texans’ owner Bob McNair decried that “we can’t have the inmates running the prison.” As it turns out, comparing a group of mostly black employees to “inmates” is not a great move. He apologized. But then he made a statement that he regretted his apology. Oh god, get it together, man.
As a group, NFL owners came together in March of 2018 and crafted a new league-wide policy: if players were on the field during the National Anthem then they had to stand or else they would be fined. Players could choose to remain in the locker room, however, until after the anthem had played. It’s a sort-of compromise but it definitely favors critics of the movement by – literally – hiding away the protest behind closed doors.
For his part, Kaepernick hasn’t been signed to another team since the end of the season when the protests began. Now, I know very little about football statistics – by choice – and sports fans have different opinions on this. But what I’ve gathered is that, based on his stats alone, it is weird that no team has picked up Kaepernick. He’s no Tom Brady or… some other quarterback whose name I definitely know. But he has a higher pass completion rate, more rushing yards, and less interceptions than other quarterbacks currently playing in the NFL.
It would appear that Kaepernick has been unofficially blackballed by NFL owners. Even if it’s not a coordinated effort, there hasn’t been a team willing to pick him up since his protests began. But, based on what I’ve seen, it seems pretty clear to me that Kaepernick paid attention in history class. His protest is textbook King-style civil disobedience. So if he has studied the past, then he should be comforted by the fact that even though he hasn’t gotten to throw a football in a while, historians are already lumping his name in with names like Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali. Not too shabby.
And now, I’d like to end this episode with a certified rant. If you just wanted the history and don’t want more of my opinion, feel free to switch over to another podcast now. But I just have a few things I’d like to get off my chest…
The reason I wanted to go into the history of debates about how to protest is because I want to make it clear that there are a lot of ways that people, including athletes, could choose to voice their opinion. And the ways that they have chosen to do that are, honestly, the mildest, most polite, option – short of not doing anything at all. I’m not at all discounting the gravity of their protests – I’m just saying that to people complaining about how these athletes are being disrespectful, unpatriotic “sons of bitches” (to quote the president) – pay attention to history. If you’re a critic who is concerned about this movement gaining steam, then you might want to listen to the guys quietly kneeling on the field instead of pushing against them so forcefully that some of them stand up and decide to take a more direct approach, a la Malcolm X.
Also, to all of the people telling celebrities to be quiet and not get involved in politics or social justice: what is wrong with you? Shouldn’t we be celebrating the fact that American celebrities are using the platform they have to be a voice for a cause they care about? Isn’t that so much better than just selling us junk food or posting pictures of their vacations on Instagram?
For example, some people were outraged when Beyonce made a slightly political statement by dressing her and her dancers in Black Panther-inspired outfits during her SuperBowl halftime show (1. Black Panther as in, the political party – her back-up dancers were dressed up as Wakandans although that would have been incredible. 2. Does anyone remember that it was actually Coldplay’s show – but they totally got overshadowed by Beyonce and Bruno Mars. You don’t invite them to a party and expect anyone to look at you, Chris Martin). Back to Beyonce, here were running jokes about white people suddenly discovering that she was black and they were outraged. How dare you! Just sing your songs about being bootylicious and stop having a “message”, Beyonce!
Also, consider this: the two industries that generate the most widely known celebrities in our society – sports and entertainment – are also the two industries in which black people have been able to find themselves on relatively equal footing over the last 50 years. Out of the top ten richest African Americans in the country, 8 are either athletes or entertainers. So if celebrities are supposed to shut up and dribble, or shut up and sing (which makes no sense), then who does that leave the black community with who has the wealth and the audience to get a message out?
Church leaders still play an incredibly important role in this, but I would argue that their power is declining, especially with young people. Politicians? In all of U.S. history, we have had around 2,000 people serve in the Senate. Out of those 2,000 Senators, TEN have been African American. Ten.
Again, I’m not discounting the incredible work of non-famous, good-old-regular people who are out there doing the daily work of social justice activism. They are the most important part of these movements. But historically, movements with a face and a voice last longer than those without – just look at the Occupy Wall Street movement. Like, what was that about? Exactly my point.
If critics silence, or at least discredit, black athletes and entertainers, then they are depriving African Americans of some of the best tools they have for getting out their message. Critics know this, and the President knows this, which is why you will continue to see attacks against black celebrities taking a stand. But it’s also because they’re scared. Who knows? Maybe they realize the power of a Jackie Robinson, a Dr. King, a Muhammad Ali, a Malcolm X, a Colin Kaepernick because they have actually paid attention to history? Or not. OK. Rant over. Sorry, I’ll just “shut up and podcast” from here on out.