Dr. King 50 Years Later: The Legacy and the Revolt of the Athlete/Activist (By Zachary Draves)
It is hard to believe that it has been 50 years since the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee. He was in Memphis to lend support to a sanitation workers strike as part of the Poor People’s Campaign he started a year prior to call to attention to the plight of the poor in this country. He had spoken out against the Vietnam War a year prior and he was drawing the ire of many in the Civil Rights Movement who felt that he was “betraying” the movement by focusing on the war and on poverty. However, Dr. King knew that you couldn’t fix one without fixing the other and that all of those issues were interconnected. As we commemorate this anniversary, this is the time for us to do at least two things. First, we must truly honor the memory of Dr. King by not whitewashing or oversimplify his words, deeds, and actions. We must not engage in what Dr. Cornel West calls “the Santa Clausification of brother Martin” in other words make him into this colorblind person whose only action was saying that he wishes his four children lived in a nation where they are not judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. He was a man of deep conviction who was truly committed to radical social change with critiques of the American empire as we have come to know it. Second, we must also look at the impact Dr. King had on the sports world and how he saw the power that sports in achieving social justice. We must look at his influence with the athletes and sports figures he came into contact with, how his death impacted the sports world, and examine how his example is demonstrated by today’s athletes work best for him.
While Dr. King by no means was a stellar athlete, the only sport he took up was billiards, which doesn’t require much exercise or grit, just hand eye coordination at the most stellar level. With that being said, Dr. King did see the potential that the athletic world had in setting the ground for racial justice. The athletic arena is a microcosm of America. The hopes and aspirations for a better day and the fundamental concept of everyone being treated equally are perfectly demonstrated on the playing field. The first collision between Dr. King and the sports world came with Jackie Robinson. We all know the story of Jackie Robinson in 1947 broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball with the Brooklyn Dodgers. It was when Jackie first broke in, that he was told by Dodgers GM Branche Rickey to “turn the other cheek” in the face of racist attacks and to maintain a sense of calm and to not speak out on racial issues. It wasn’t until Jackie retired in 1957 that he started to speak out and became involved in the Civil Rights Movement. It was during that time, that Jackie encountered Dr. King, who encouraged Jackie to get more involved. In many respects, both men were and still continue to be grossly whitewashed and their images watered down to fit a troubling narrative of colorblindness and American exceptionalism. They simply worked hard, never complained, apparently didn’t see the color of a person skin, and that if anyone can achieve based on individual merit, others will follow suit, regardless of systemic and institutional barriers. However, as history tells us, they were able to be themselves at the right time and spoke out more vehemently on the need to not just combat individual racist attitudes, but to combat systemic oppression. Along the way, they shared some memorable moments together. Dr. King and Jackie both received honorary degrees from Howard University in 1957 and in 1962; Jackie spoke at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference that was founded by Dr. King. Jackie was present at the March on Washington on August 28, 1963 when Dr. King gave the “I Have a Dream” speech. When Dr. King was arrested and jailed for civil disobedience, Jackie and his family hosted a jazz concert to raise money for bail and Jackie sent a telegram to then President Lyndon Johnson asking him to intervene during the march on Selma in 1965, to have the National Guard to protect Dr. King and the others get to Montgomery safely. Dr. King was also instrumental in working with two of Jackie’s teammates, Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella, both African American to speak out on matters of race and for their protection from racist attacks. Jackie and Dr. King did have a few disagreements including Vietnam War, but nevertheless, they remained great friends until 1968. It was from there; the link between Dr. King and sports was forever established.
It was during the mid 1960’s, as the movement began to evolve as well as Dr. King., that evolution spread into the sports world, particularly with a young brash boxer from Louisville, Kentucky who defeated Sonny Liston to become the Heavyweight Champion of the world at age 22. His name was originally Cassius Marcellus Clay, but was changed to Muhammad Ali. In 1965, Ali was a prominent member of the Nation of Islam and was influenced by Malcolm X and the Honorable Elijah Muhammad who preached a message of black nationalism and a politics of separatism, the latter of which stood in stark contrast to what Dr. King’s wing of the movement represented. However, the paths of Ali and Dr. King would cross as did with Dr. King and Malcolm X. It was 1967, and Ali was drafted into the army, but refused induction due to his religious beliefs, a move that made him into a national pariah. While many in the mainstream were quick to jump on Ali and calling him “anti-American” and a “traitor”, Dr. King was there to support him. Dr. King even said it himself that even if people had issues with Ali’s membership in the Nation of Islam, that they should admire his courage to stand on principles against an unjust war. If it wasn’t for Ali’s courageous move, Dr. King maybe wouldn’t have followed in denouncing the war. Eventually, Dr. King and Ali gathered in Ali’s hometown of Louisville to advocate for fair housing. When Dr. King was jailed for protest in 1967, Ali sent him a telegram from Chicago offering support. After Dr. King’s death, his beloved wife Coretta Scott King was supportive of Ali and she along with Civil Rights Activist Ralph Abernathy publicly showed their support for Ali when he was allowed to fight again in Atlanta in 1970. Much like, Dr. King and Jackie Robinson, Ali himself, especially in his post-boxing years battling Parkinson’s, has been whitewashed and watered down and people forget of what he actually represented and what he stood for. He stood for not only racial justice, but also somebody who was immensely critical of the American empire, he was critical of imperialism. It is frankly unbelievable that those, particularly on the extreme right, who push militarism and discriminatory policies, want to somehow sing the praises of Muhammad Ali, Jackie Robinson, and Dr. King, but we don’t have all day.
In the last two years of his life, Dr. King got word that a group of black athletes led by a sociology professor at San Jose University in California was organizing an attempt to boycott the Summer Olympics in Mexico City in 1968. The call was issued by Dr. Harry Edwards, who was a professor of the sociology of sport, a radical concept at the time, and a former athlete that was very active in the Black Power Movement. He created a campaign called the Olympic Project for Human Rights, whose goals vast and including things such as hiring more black coaches, disinviting South Africa and Rhodesia from the Olympics due to their racist government policies, restoring Muhammad Ali’s title, and the firing of the openly racist and anti-Semitic Avery Brundidge, the head of the International Olympic Committee. He managed to garner the support of famed athlete activists like Bill Russell and Lew Alcindor at UCLA who would later become Kareem Abdul Jabbar as well as Black Power activists like Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown, but not really anyone in the Civil Rights Movement. Until, you know who comes along. Dr. King became the first national leader to fully endorse the Olympic Project for Human Rights. Dr. King met with Dr. Edwards and many of the athletes in support of the boycott. Eventually the boycott didn’t happened and tragically Dr. King wouldn’t be around to see what would transpire in Mexico City. After the 200 meter race, two black American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos took home the gold and bronze medals. We all know what happened next. They took off their shoes to symbolize poverty, John wore beads around his neck in honor of the victims of lynchings, John opened his jacket to show solidarity for black and white blue collar workers, and each of them both wore a black glove. When the national anthem played, they raised their black gloved fist into the air in a statement of solidarity for the black freedom movement in one of the most beautiful and stunning images ever. They both paid the price in later years with death threats, loss of employment, and FBI surveillance, similar to Dr. King’s experience, but they knew they had to follow their hearts. Dr. King would have been so proud of them because they made a statement and acted so in the highest tradition of non violent civil disobedience. They were the most recognizable act of athlete activism in the aftermath of Dr. King’s death and there were many others to follow.
On the day of Dr. King’s death and in the years to come, the sports world had to come to terms with what his death meant and how it deeply affected them, particularly those who used their athletic platform in support of the movement. A great example came on the night of April 4th 1968, when the Boston Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers were about to battle it out during the NBA Eastern Conference Finals and the first game being the following day. Bill Russell, the great Celtics center who was passionately outspoken and involved in the movement, was devastated by the news. He was at the March on Washington in 1963 with Dr. King. He organized basketball clinics in Mississippi after the assassination of Medgar Evers in 1963. He supported Muhammad Ali and the proposed boycott of the 1968 Olympics. He bought land in the African nation of Liberia that was founded by freed slaves. He would wear dashikis in public to show cultural pride at the height of the Black Power movement. He had a personal stake in the tragedy of Dr. King’s death. His counterpart, rival, and close friend, the great Wilt Chamberlain was equally devastated. Although Chamberlain wasn’t involved in the movement and openly supported the politics of Richard Nixon of all people, he was shocked and saddened at the news and they talked to each other on the phone about what to do. They both expressed hesitation at playing as well as postponing. Eventually, the first game went on as scheduled, but the feeling in the air was one of fear, shock, grief, and despair. No matter who won or loss, Dr. King was gone and our state of democracy was in shambles. Game 2 was postponed due to the national day of mourning that was called for by Lyndon Johnson. Major League Baseball’s opening weekend games were postponed. Pittsburgh Pirates legend Roberto Clemente, the first Latino to break into baseball, a pioneer in his own right, openly spoke out against playing in the aftermath of Dr. King’s death. After all, Clemente was an outspoken supporter of the movement. Legendary St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Bob Gibson, who won the Cy Young award in 1968, opted to not play. Eventually every team that was scheduled to play did not play; with the only owner who differed from everyone was Walter O’Malley, the disgraced owner of the LA Dodgers, the same team that signed Jackie Robinson in Brooklyn. He had to cave to the pressure because the Dodgers opponent, the Philadelphia Phillies opted to not play. Jim Brown, the great running back of the Cleveland Browns and activist, who created the Negro Industrial Economic Union that advocate for black ownership and black economic empowerment, was called on to be a source of calm during the rebellions that occurred in many major cities in the aftermath of Dr. King’s death.
In 1970, two years after Dr. King was assassinated, Major League Baseball put together a star studded all star game in his honor. It was originally set for 1969, but scheduling conflicts, it was rescheduled. The game brought together many of the game’s most prominent starts from the East and West to play in which all the proceeds from the game would go to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The game featured Willie Mayes, Hank Aaron, Tom Seaver, Pete Rose, Al Kaline, and Bob Gibson with Roy Campanella being the West Coast manager and Joe DiMaggio being the East Coast manager. In 1974, Hank Aaron was on the verge of breaking Babe Ruth’s all time home run record, playing for Dr. King’s hometown Atlanta Braves nonetheless. He was knocking on the door of history and in doing so was enduring horrific racist threats. Hank Aaron, whom himself had a relationship with Dr. King, was an outspoken activist in his own right. He worked with the NAACP and Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow/Push Coalition on matters concerning racial justice in sports and beyond. Hank advocated for black managers and black owners at a time when the notion of that was unheard of. When he was reluctant to play a game against the Cincinnati Reds on April 4th 1974, he was told by then Commissioner Bowie Kuhn that he had to play, as a matter of compromise; Hank said that he will play as long as there is a moment of silence for Dr. King. Sadly, his request was denied. Eventually, he broke the record, but didn’t forget the way he was treated in pursuing so and also never forgot the memory of Dr. King.
Fast forward 50 years later, the standard question we must ask ourselves is where do we go from here? Well one general answer is we must go forwards and not backwards. Unfortunately, given the current climate and current political leadership, if you want to call it that, we are stuck in a state of fear and uncertainty. We know what we are up against, but we also know what we stand for and what we stand for are the principles that Dr. King stood for. He stood for freedom, justice, and equality across the board. If Dr. King was around today, he would be supportive of the Black Lives Matter movement, the #METOO and #TIMESUP movements, the LGBTQ movement, Standing Rock, the movement to combat climate change, and of course the movement to eradicate poverty. Not only that, he was be just as supportive of the athletes that have risen to the occasion and have heed the call for justice. Dr. King would support Colin Kaepernick and others taking a knee during the anthem to protest racial injustice. He would support the U.S. Women’s Soccer and Hockey teams fight for equal pay. He would support LeBron James, Steph Curry, Carmelo Anthony, Dwayne Wade, Chris Paul, and others in the NBA for speaking out on social justice matters. He would have supported the WNBA players Maya Moore, Tina Charles, Breanna Stewart, and Sue Bird for using their platform to speak out on everything from police violence to sexual harassment. He would have supported the brave and courageous U.S. Gymnastics team who helped lead the way for serial rapist Dr. Larry Nassar to jail for 150 years. He would have supported women athletes advocating for equal pay, equal prize money, and for better recognition such as Billie Jean King, Sheryl Swoopes, Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Jackie Joyner Kersee, and Venus and Serena Williams. He would have supported Chamique Holdclasw, Royce White, Metta World Peace, Kevin Love, Michael Phelps, and others for using their platform to advocate for mental health awareness in sports. He would have supported the rights and dignity of athletes with disabilities including the Special Olympics. He would have supported a black ownership team to take over the Carolina Panthers. He would have supported Malcolm Jenkins and Chris Long of the Philadelphia Eagles on their efforts to address criminal justice reform and education. He would have supported the precence and outspokenness and activism of LGBTQ athletes such as Billie Jean King, Martina Navritilova, Jason Collins, Billie Bean, Greg Louganis, Glenn Burke, Wade Davis, Adam Rippon, Brittany Griener, and Gus Kenworthy. 50 years later, Dr. King’s legacy lives on, but his dream, that dream where we all are seen as truly equals, has not come true. We have a long way to go until the dream becomes reality and when that day comes, we can truly say “Free at last, free at last, thank god almighty we are free at last.”