Colin Kaepernick has successfully solidified his position within a resilient history of Black athletic activism. His silent protest is situated within the succession of his predecessors. The history of black athletic activists before Kaepernick should be included, if not centered in the current discourse of intersectional politics and sports.
Historically, Black athletes have been agents of social justice change. They played their respective sports under racist supervision and scrutiny, challenged internal discrimination, and established a legacy of black iconism in sports.
The late Muhammad Ali is known professionally for his boxing career. His narrative is also one of relentless activism, especially on matters of race, gender, religion, and war.
In the 1960’s he was strongly condemned for his refusal of the draft to Vietnam.
“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 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?” Ali said.
Amidst the hegemonic racist climate of the 60’s, the public responded strongly against Ali’s refusal. An article by the “Atlantic” quotes then television host, David Susskind.
“I find nothing amusing or interesting or tolerable about this man. He’s a disgrace to his country, his race, and what he laughingly describes as his profession,” Susskind said, “He is a simplistic fool and a pawn.”
Susskind’s words only contributed to the national sentiment towards the athlete.
Even with a heavy court case against him, his title stripped away, and the intense backlash, Ali never wavered in his beliefs. Seeing strong inaccuracies with fighting for a segregationist country that continued to brutalize black bodies.“I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong,” he famously said.
Ali is just one case.
Black athletes such as major league baseball player Jackie Robinson, tennis player Arthur Ashe, and track athlete Jesse Owens are a few names that are situated inside conversations around politics and sports.
Particularly, Robinson is known for breaking desegregation within major league baseball. Facing racist slurs and prejudice during his athletic tenure, he calmly resisted hatred and simultaneously became a highly regarded and successful ball player.
Robinson was an active leader in the civil rights movement after his athletic career. He ultimately became a board member of the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People. “There’s not an American in this country free until every one of us is free,” Robinson said.
He wrote in his autobiography, “I Never Had It Made”, that he had trouble singing the National Anthem as an athlete. “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.”
Prominent black figures have left a legacy of activism in sports. It difficult to trace the leadership of black athletes and not contextualize it within the politics of their time.
When Kaepernick kneeled, he reminded us that activism has always had a place in sports.