On August 28, 1963, basketball superstar and activist Bill Russell sat in the second row at the March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. It became one of the most famous civil rights rallies in the country’s history. But Russell called it a “mere picnic” — a radical idea that had been “compromised” by organizers worried about appeasing then-President Kennedy.
Fifty-four years later, this story of activism compromised repeats itself.
Last Sunday, in the largest single-day athlete protest in American sports history, players across the league linked arms and took a knee during the national anthem. But it was a toothless gesture. The demonstration, which started as a protest against police brutality by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, had become a “mere picnic.”
Last weekend’s wave of protest was prompted by an angry rebuke by President Trump during a rally in Alabama. The president called for any “son of a bitch” who took a knee to be fired by the NFL. In response, players across the nation knelt in front of the flag during Sunday’s games. But these protests meant something different. Billionaire team owners who had donated to Trump’s campaign joined in. The symbol of taking a knee came to mean something else — unity, anger toward Trump, free speech. Kaepernick’s bold statement against systemic racism had been co-opted.
The beauty and brilliance of Kaepernick’s protest the previous season is that it put all athletes and fans on notice. "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 told reporters. He did not mince words.
And his truth drew the ire of white fans. For two minutes, they had to confront systemic racism and police brutality, something most fans don’t want to acknowledge, especially during a football game. In short, Kaepernick took a page from Bill Russell’s activist athlete playbook. As Russell noted in 1964, “We have got to make the white population uncomfortable, because that is the only way to get their attention.”
At the height of his career, Russell embodied the activist athlete. He boycotted games to protest Jim Crow, and he traveled to murderous Mississippi to join civil rights activists. When asked if he would quit playing basketball to join the movement, he stated, “Yes, but only if it would make a concrete contribution. There’d be no choice. It would be the duty of any American to fight for a cause he strongly believes in.” Russell remained with the Celtics, but he continued to dedicate his life to activism. Earlier this week, he knelt in support of Kaepernick while wearing his Presidential Medal of Freedom.
But when Russell showed up at the March on Washington in the 1960s, the protest, which was originally planned as a labor movement to demand a federal jobs program to lift black people out of poverty, had shifted to focus on civil rights only. Leaders agreed to abandon sit-in protests at the Capitol, settling for speeches instead. Freedom fighters in the Southern trenches, like John Lewis, had to tone down their rhetoric. Acquiescing to the demands of leaders, including King, Lewis changed his speech.
Although President Kennedy did not attend, his presence was key in whitewashing the event. Organizers changed the program to accommodate him. Kennedy specifically asked activists to avoid protests and attacks on his administration. If he was going to put forth a civil rights bill, he did not want to be called out for his inaction on civil rights.
The day’s most memorable moment, MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech, was whitewashed. Instead of remembering his plea to end police brutality, his unifying dream of interracial harmony has become his legacy. This allowed Americans to evade the reality that King wanted more than just black and white kids sipping from the same water fountain. Among other demands often forgotten, King wanted an end to state violence against black people. As he urged, “We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.”
The same is happening with Colin Kaepernick’s protest. The desire to appease adversaries has overshadowed the meaning of a protest against systemic racism.
The history of black athleticism
Since the late 1960s and the height of athlete activism, white fans have been too comfortable. In football, this provides the necessary distance between a league that is nearly 70 percent black and the systemic racism that led to the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, and many others. White America has to wrestle with the reality that state violence is an everyday worry for black Americans, or there will be no change to the system.
Being comfortable in their privilege, however, means that white fans have convinced themselves, like Pino from Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, that black players are somehow “black, but they’re not really black; they’re more than black.” Of course, we know that’s not true. Just ask Steelers coach Mike Tomlin. Last Sunday, after Tomlin’s team stayed in the locker room during the playing of the national anthem (they stayed in the locker because every player could not agree on one unified protest) the team was met with backlash from fans. A Pennsylvania fire chief called Tomlin the n-word. Others burned players’ jerseys in anger. These fans want black athletes to shut up and play.
Historically, the American sporting tradition has told black athletes to be content, to shut up and play, to stick to sports. As Jackie Robinson once said, “As long as the Negro is humble and submissive he is approved by the majority group, but when he demands his rights he is regarded by many as arrogant and a troublemaker.”
Robinson, Russell, Muhammad Ali, John Carlos, Tommie Smith, Craig Hodges, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Tina Charles, and Venus and Serena Williams, to name a few, are part of the cadre of athletes who did or do consistently speak truth to power during their careers. Most paid dearly for their activism. Robinson received death threats, Russell had his house defecated in, Ali lost three years of his career, Carlos and Smith were kicked out of the Olympics and struggled to find employment, and Hodges was blacklisted by the NBA.
Fearing the retribution that comes with activism, most black athletes have shied away from activism. Their contribution to improving society, they reasoned, came on the playing field. As Willie Mays once said during the civil rights movement, “Reporters are always asking me why I don’t sit in or demonstrate for civil rights. I try to make my contributions for racial harmony in the best way I know how — on the baseball field.”
Kaepernick, in daring to make a stand, has lost his career. NFL owners are blacklisting him as punishment for making them, and their fans, uncomfortable. He is being punished for refusing to whitewash his message.
The Trump effect on Kaepernick’s protest
This season, in support of Kaepernick, more NFL players have joined the protests, including for the first time, white players. And this growing united front caught the attention of President Trump.
Trump has turned the players’ protests into a wedge issue. This is part of an old playbook from the right to increase their support by attacking civil rights protesters.
But in attacking players last weekend, the president, who uses his bully pulpit to simply be in the news, unwittingly changed the narrative of the protests. His attacks woke up a black labor force that had been placated by a long demand to shut up and play. After Trump’s remarks, it was clear the players would react. People suspected the protests would be a televised demonstration against police brutality. Black players would kneel in defiance. And in doing so, by refusing to stick to sports, this would also be a shot at the owners who had demanded their deference.
But ahead of this past weekend’s games, a number of the same owners who have likely colluded to keep Kaepernick out of their league joined the athletes in their protest. To be clear, although they went to the field and linked arms, owners like Jerry Jones, Dan Snyder, Arthur Blank, and Shahid Khan did not join the protests. They co-opted the protests and turned the day into a “mere picnic.” The protests that started out as a demonstration against systemic racism turned into a pacified demonstration for free speech, patriotism, and unity.
What the owners were protesting is hard to tell. In their proclamations, these owners used words like “unity” to explain their newfound passion for protests. Dan Snyder, the owner of the Washington football team, told reporters he joined the players to honor armed forces and “bring unity.” But unity is a false promise when you’re donating a million dollars to a misogynist who sides with white supremacists. That’s cowardice.
Unity is recognizing that black players on your team have had their lives altered by systemic racism. Unity is understanding that police brutality has been an ongoing fight for black Americans since emancipation. The owners’ statements should have addressed those historical realities.
These signs of solidarity, however, intentionally play into America’s desire to see moments of interracial brotherhood. As Americans, we eat this stuff up. It soothes our souls and acts as a moral evasion of America’s ills.
But this fight has to remain about police brutality and systemic racism. And we must remember Martin Luther King Jr.’s radical words uttered during the otherwise neutered protest as Bill Russell looked on: “There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.”
Louis Moore is an associate professor of history at Grand Valley State University. He has two books that just dropped this week: I Fight for a Living: Boxing and the Battle for Black Manhood, 1880-1915, and We Will Win the Day: The Civil Rights Movement, the Black Athlete and the Quest for Equality.