Editor’s Note: This piece originally ran on Sept. 4, 2020. We felt it would be appropriate to re-run it today.
I was 10 years old when my father, Martin Luther King Jr., was assassinated. And though I was heartbroken, I also remember being moved to learn that members of the Pittsburgh Pirates, led by the great Roberto Clemente, refused to play in the days following, out of respect for my father.
Although other teams did not follow the Pirates’ example, Clemente and his white teammate Dave Wickersham issued a statement saying, “We are doing this because we white and black players respect what Dr. King has done for mankind.”
There is a great tradition of African-American athletes—both professional and amateur—standing up for social justice. Jackie Robinson broke the “color barrier” in 1947 and continued to speak out for civil rights throughout his career. Muhammad Ali cited his religious convictions and opposition to the Vietnam War when he resisted the military draft in 1966. Olympic track stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos were criticized by many for giving the ‘Black Power’ salute at the medal ceremony for the 200-meter sprint at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968.
When Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s home run record in 1974, he endured racist threats but refused to be intimidated and continued to champion racial justice. And when 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick knelt during the national anthem in 2016 in protest against police brutality towards black Americans, he too was vilified and threatened.
Fast forward to 2020, and Kaepernick is now widely hailed as a prophet among pro athletes for putting his career on the line and making tremendous personal sacrifices to make a statement. His leadership, along with the slayings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the horrific shooting of Jacob Blake and too many other police atrocities against citizens of color, has helped to inspire more athlete activism.
Today we are seeing wildcat strikes, game postponements, team knee-taking, moments of silence honoring victims and prayers for their families. We have seen athletes, even teams, march in support of the Black Lives Matter Movement in professional and amateur sports, including football, basketball, baseball, soccer, tennis and hockey, to name a few. In collaboration with the NAACP, superstar LeBron James is making a critically important contribution with More Than a Vote, a multimillion-dollar campaign to a fight voter suppression and recruit young poll volunteers.
In addition, the Women’s National Basketball Association is playing a bold leadership role in protesting against police violence toward people of color. It is encouraging that these causes are being supported, in many cases, by white teammates, coaches and fans.
Of course, some shortsighted fans and narrow-minded politicians argue that pro athletes should stay out of social change movements and stick to playing their respective sports, as if their sole function in life was to entertain the public. But these athletes are also caring human beings and, thankfully, conscientious citizens, who know that young people look to them for hope and inspiration. They have chosen to use their influence in a positive way, to call for an end to racial injustice and police brutality. I am grateful for their leadership.
Professional sports are among our nation’s great institutions, not only because of the enjoyment it brings to our families and communities. They are one of the few social arenas, where Americans of different races, religions and cultures come together to share fellowship and goodwill.
My father once said, “We have to be together before we can learn how to live together.” Young people of all races come together on the playgrounds, courts and ballfields of America. There, they can learn how to understand and relate to one another, how to work together in pursuit of common goals and explore the power of interracial cooperation, not to mention have fun in athletic competition.
Professional sports build a sense of community across racial lines every day, all across the nation, and the creative leadership of these athlete activists carries forward that noble tradition. When professional athletes speak out about racial injustice, they get the attention of young people in a way politicians cannot match. When they articulate a vision of community that offers respect and love for all people, it matters. And when they ground their call to community in collective action, they gain credibility.
I salute the integrity and courage of these athlete activists in standing up for America’s best values, which are now under an unprecedented assault. Their continued commitment can help light the way forward to a new era of hope and healing for our country, when every citizen can feel safe and secure from racial violence. With our support, every stadium can become a ‘field of dreams,’ a place where brotherhood and sisterhood can one day prevail and help shape a better future for all Americans.
The author is former President and CEO of the King Center and the eldest son of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.