August 30 2016
By refusing to stand for the national anthem, Kaepernick joins a long line of Black athletes who use their position to protest racism in the U.S.
There are many Black activist athletes. | Photo: Wiki Commons – Twitter
The flag is “a symbol of oppression, of tyranny”
The story is by now well-known. With the national anthem blaring from the PA system, the players and crowd stand to salute the U.S. flag when a beat reporter notices something slightly off: a Black athlete, sitting alone. After the game he asks a simple question: Why?
The flag, the player responds bluntly, is “a symbol of oppression, of tyranny” and he planned to continue to refuse to stand for the anthem. Asked if he might suffer repercussions as a result, the Black athlete answers unflichingly: “My beliefs are more important than anything,” he says.
Twenty years before San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s sat out the national anthem before a preseason pro football game Friday, Denver Nuggets guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf made an almost identical gesture. Born Chris Jackson in Jackson, Mississippi, the 6-foot-guard, who played with Shaquille O’Neal at Louisianna State University, had converted to Islam as an NBA rookie. “I’m a Muslim first and a Muslim last,” Abdul-Rauf said at the time. “My duty is to my creator, not to nationalistic ideology.”
Kaepernick is hardly the first Black athlete in the U.S. to take a political stand against racism in the U.S. – nor, frankly, is Abdul-Raouf. The roster of Black athletes who have stood up – or perhaps, better yet, sat down – to protest the country’s institutionalized racism dates back nearly as far as sport itself.
John Carlos and Tommie Smith
Olympic sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith startled the United States and the rest of the world when, at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, they raised their fists in the Black power salute during the national anthem at the Olympic prize ceremony.
Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists in a civil rights gesture on the Olympic medal stand in Mexico City, 1968. | Photo: Flickr / Galaxy fm
“I wasn’t there for the race. I was there to actually make a statement,” Carlos recalled decades later. “I was ashamed of America for America’s deeds, what they were doing in history, as well as what they were doing at that particular time. I just needed to get a place on the victory stand.”
Only a few years later, American Major League Baseball second baseman Jackie Robinson published his 1972 biography, in which he powerfully recounted that as a Black man, he could not “stand and sing the anthem,” nor “salute the flag”.
Jackie Robinson swinging a bat in Dodgers uniform, 1954. | Photo: Wiki Commons
“I know that I am a Black man in a white world,” said Robinson, who integrated Major League baseball in 1947. “In 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made,” he wrote.
Mahmoud Rauf said that reading “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” changed his perspective, particularly when the militant Muslim leader wrote: “You’re not to be so blind with patriotism that you can’t face reality.”
And it is perhaps Malcolm X’s protégé, the legendary boxer Muhammad Ali, who took the boldest stance for an athlete in 1966, when he refused induction into the Vietnam War, earning the wrath of many whites. Much like Kaepernick, Abdul-Raouf, and others, Ali said that he cared not a whit what others thought.
“My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America,” he said at the time. “And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father. … Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”
Ali in 1966. | Photo: Wiki Commons
There might also be another reason to compare Kaepernick to the Black athletes who came before him. Ali was prohibited from boxing in the prime of his career, Smith and Carlos were summarily exiled from the sport after their protest, and Abdul-Raouf, while he was suspended by the NBA for only one day, saw his basketball career end shortly after his protest became public.
While mostly white 49ers fans continue to be infuriated by Kaepernick’s committed stance – with some even circulating a petition calling on the football team to fire him, and filming burning the quarterback’s jersey to the tune of the national anthem – Kaepernick isn’t about to give in any time soon.
“I’m going to continue to stand with the people that are being oppressed” he said. “I’m going to speak the truth when I’m asked about it. This isn’t for look. This isn’t for publicity or anything like that. This is for people that don’t have the voice. And this is for people that are being oppressed and need to have equal opportunities to be successful. To provide for families and not live in poor circumstances.”