Athletes Honor Martin Luther King in the Age of Trump

Athletes Honor Martin Luther King in the Age of Trump


MLK Day celebrations took center stage during most of the sporting events Monday night. In the NFL, players from around the league honored the fallen civil rights leader by sharing quotes and videos on social media. In fact, the NFL itself joined in this effort, tweeting out a link to a piece about influential African-American football players.


The same was from the folks at the NBA. Athletes took to their phones to post tributes, and some players donned special sneakers, an all-black signature shoes or a pair of Nike’s with “Sideline Racism” written across the side. These sorts of tributes flooded the feeds of sports-fans around the country.
However, students in Alabama honored Dr King in a slightly more traditional fashion. The Troy University football team spent the day marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, the same sport where voting rights protesters had faced off against the police 52 years earlier. It was here that America’s “bloody Sunday” unfolded.
On March 7, 1965, at the request of Martin Luther King and his organization, John Lewis was leading a protest march. There goal was simple, they would walk the 50 miles from Selma to Montgomery in order to “dramatize to the nation that people of color wanted to register to vote”. But, when they got to the bridge, they were met with “a wall of state troopers” and a posse of recently deputized locals.
The troopers gave Lewis and the others three minutes to disperse, and then they began to don their gas-masks. Moments later, police fired teargas into the crowd. A group of men on horseback charged into the crowd and officers began to beat the men and women with nightsticks. Lewis was hit first, and then they went after the others. Afterwards, at least 17 protesters had hospitalized with serious injuries. Blood pocked the bridge over the Alabama River.
Lewis and the others went through all of this simply because they wanted to vote. They were beaten in pursuit of democracy, beaten in pursuit of their rights, beaten for believing in truths our founding fathers once called “self-evident”. And what’s all too too quickly forgotten is that on that tragic day in Alabama, it was the elected officials who ordered the violence, and the officers who carried them out, that were operating legally.
In the days and weeks that followed the United States passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But now, years later, people within our government are once again trying to dismantle what’s left of that legislation. Jeff Sessions, Trump’s pick for attorney general, has spoken out against it. Trump attacked John Lewis on twitter. And now, Governor Paul LePage went so far as to insinuate Lewis owed Republicans a “thank you” for all their efforts in the 1800’s.

This is where we find ourselves now. And while I can appreciate the online outpouring of love and respect for Dr. King, when you contrast the actions of those students in Troy, Alabama, to those of media outlets like ESPN (who spent the day airing a tribute to Obama’s love of sports), it can sometimes feel like we’re losing sight of the real issues…

On Monday, in the rush for athletic organizations to commemorate and commercialize MLK Day, there was little talk of the issues that underscored his legacy.  I understand, it can be tricky for organizations like the NFL or NBA to celebrate these days without politicizing them, but the truth is there would be no MLK day without politics.
Luckily, the celebrations, much like King’s legacy, were not limited to one day. Over the weekend, the National Civil Rights Museum honored Grant Hill with their Sports Legacy Award. Hill took to opportunity to thank the museum and praise athletes that make the choice to get involved politically and speak out when they see something wrong:

“To be recognized is overwhelming. It’s humbling. It really is a true honor… I think a lot of times we put people in a box … they’re (only) for entertainment purposes or to play for your favorite team. We have to learn to listen. Talk to each other, not at each other… Maybe I’m just the eternal optimist … (but) when you see what our people have endured and overcome you get a feeling of optimism. And young people can make the change.”

Hill’s words got closest to echoing the spirit that fueled protesters in the days of John Lewis… Because young people can make change we need in the world – but it’s going to take more than tweets.