Colin Kapernick’s place alongside other brave men such as Jackie Robinson, John Carlos and Tommie Smith, and Muhammad Ali
When in August 2016, Colin Kaepernick decided to take a stand by taking a knee during the playing of the American national anthem before the start of an NFL game, he joined the ranks of a select few high-profile athletes who dared to “call out” the United States on widespread racism and social injustice that continue to debilitate the lives of Blacks and other minorities.
Kaepernick, then quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, began his protest by sitting during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner, stating at the time: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black People and people of color. 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.”
He eventually chose to kneel or “take a knee,” he says, in deference to, and to show respect for, those who served and those currently serving in the US military.
There’s no telling if Kaepernick knew at the time that there would be consequences to his actions, but by taking his stand he took his place alongside a few other brave men such as Jackie Robinson, John Carlos and Tommie Smith, and Muhammad Ali, all of whom paid dearly for attempting to shine the spotlight on the racism that scars America’s underbelly.
So much of it started with Robinson, who, although he remained a dignified presence in desegregating professional baseball as the league’s first Black player, understood only too well what was his role and his place in America.
In his book I Never Had It Made, he set the tone for how the other dissenting voices would react to the flag and the anthem: “… As I write this twenty years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made.”
During the 1968 Summer Olympics, Smith and Carlos used their place on the podium reserved their loyalty to the symbols of national pride in the USA to make a point about racism and its debilitating impact on Blacks at home.
After placing first and third in the 200-meter race, the athletes attended the medal ceremony with a well-choreographed expression of protest action that turned the eyes of the world on their home country.
Both accepted their medals shoeless, wearing black socks and %%%%% the national anthem with their heads bowed and offered a Black power salute with black gloves on their clenched fists.
Just as the black socks represented black poverty, other articles of clothing worn by the two athletes punctuated their protest and were symbolic of their cause: the black scarf around Smith’s neck represented black pride.
Carlos’ necklace of beads were dedicated to those who were “lynched…,” “hung and tarred…” or those “thrown off the side of the boats in the Middle Passage” and “no-one said a prayer for.” He also unzipped his tracksuit top in solidarity with all blue-collar workers in the US.
Of course, America was not appreciative of the athletes’ action nor were Olympic organizers, and Smith and Carlos were promptly expelled from the Games.
Back at home, although they continued in athletics both were widely ostracized, and together with their families were subjected to on-going death threats. Although Smith was able to eventually chart a path to success in the NFL and as a university professor, Carlos never fully realized the potential of his talent and experienced tough economic times and bouts of depression until he found his way as a high school educator and guidance counselor.
Boxing legend Ali stands today as the ultimate symbol of resistance to USA policies of oppression and exclusion, both at home and abroad. For many, his words continue to resonate:
“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 and denied simple human rights?
No, I am not going ten thousand miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end.
I have been warned that to take such a stand would put my prestige in jeopardy and could cause me to lose millions of dollars, which should accrue to me as the champion. But I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is right here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality…
If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. But I either have to obey the laws of the land or the laws of Allah. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail. We’ve been in jail for four hundred years.”
And with that, he became one of the most reviled personalities in a nation obsessed with war and race.
On March 22, 1966, Ali felt the full brunt of the nation’s anger. He was stripped of his title, his boxing license was suspended by New York State, and on June 20 he was convicted of draft evasion and sentenced to five years in prison with a $10,000 fine.
He eventually had the verdict overturned on appeal.
Now it’s Colin Kaepernick’s turn.
For his actions, the 29-year-old has become one of the most polarizing figures in the US, celebrated by supporters for keeping the spotlight on a spate of police murders of Black men, but scorned by a wide cross-section of Americans who want him to play football and shut up.
So, as it was with Ali, Kaepernick was “blackballed” from his sport by NFL owners and coaches all of whom continue to play into the public hatred and refuse to hire the talented quarterback to play his game.
Just the way Donald Trump wants it.
At a rally in front of his supporters in Birmingham, the president showed himself to be the hater-in-chief, by targeting those NFL players who chose ‘to take a knee.’ He mused that NFL owners should fire any of “those sons of bitches” who disrespected the national anthem and the flag.
Trump’s childish belligerence aside, the expectation is that Kaepernick has already succeeded in stirring the conscience and consciousness of many of today’s professional athletes and challenging them to join the conversation about racism in America.
That’s vindication enough.
Smith and Carlos found theirs decades after taking their stand with their protest salute: In 2005, their alma mater San Jose State University honored them with a 22-foot high statue of their protest titled Victory Salute. And in 2008, they received the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPY Award.
In 1970 he Ali started his comeback, winning a series of fights that led him to a title fight in March 1971, when he suffered his first professional defeat in the ring against Joe Frazier.
Almost three years later, in January 1974, he came back and defeated Frazier, which led to his “Rumble in The Jungle” against George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire.
Eight years after Ali was banished from boxing in the prime of his career, he came back and achieved what many thought impossible: knock out his most formidable opponent and retained the World Heavyweight Boxing title.
Without saying Colin Kaepernick is kneeling squarely on the shoulders of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, and the one and only, Muhammad Ali.
He can’t be dislodged.