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Olympian John Carlos on protests: “If you’re famous and you’re black, you have to be an activist”

Activism isn’t always optional.

Universal History Archive/Getty Images

Since 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick decided not to stand during the national anthem two weeks ago as a statement against police brutality, critics have used nearly every excuse in the book to condemn him.

From being too rich to protest racism to false rumors that he’s protesting simply because his partner is Muslim, each attack hinges on the idea that Kaepernick’s protest is a choice. And while his team has supported his right to protest, and the NFL has yet to sanction him, the overall sentiment is that Kaepernick’s protest is a choice he shouldn’t be making.

But according to Olympic bronze medalist John Carlos, who made a similar statement by raising his fist in a Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City along with Tommie Smith, activism simply isn’t optional for prominent African Americans.

“If you’re famous and you’re black, you have to be an activist,” Carlos told Vox in July.

Kaepernick-inspired protests continued to gain momentum this weekend. Miami Dolphin players Jelani Jenkins, Kenny Stills, Michael Thomas, and Arian Foster all took a knee during the national anthem for their game against the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday. Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Marcus Peters also raised his right fist during the national anthem before the Chiefs played the San Diego Chargers.

In many ways, the acts of solidarity surrounding Kaepernick’s protests are a testament to the times. Three years after the Black Lives Matter organization was created, the movement for black lives has exploded into a national black-millennial-led movement for racial justice, with prominent black athletes like Kaepernick counted among them.

But these protests also look a lot like history repeating itself. Muhammad Ali famously refused to fight in the Vietnam War in 1967, not just because it was against his faith but also, more bluntly, because the Vietnamese, as he said, never “called me [racial slur].”

The fact is that America has yet to fix racism. And while black athletes have faced pressure to just play the game so that politics don’t cut into their paychecks, even typically less vocal athletes are speaking out.

In 1992, Michael Jordan made his political stance (or lack thereof) known by reportedly saying, “Republicans buy sneakers, too,” to skirt supporting a black Democrat in his home state of North Carolina. However, this past July, Jordan made a surprising 180 when he condemned police brutality in a letter to the Undefeated in July:

As a proud American, a father who lost his own dad in a senseless act of violence, and a black man, I have been deeply troubled by the deaths of African-Americans at the hands of law enforcement and angered by the cowardly and hateful targeting and killing of police officers. I grieve with the families who have lost loved ones, as I know their pain all too well.

Neither money nor prestige can protect black athletes from racism. And as racism persists, black athletes like Kaepernick are left with few if any options but to put their feet into the fire that engulfs the communities they belong to.