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How Colin Kaepernick became a cause for activists, civil rights groups and others

‘We felt that he took a knee for us, so we need to stand up for him’

There’s no doubt about it: Colin Kaepernick is the face of the new civil rights movement. By first sitting and then kneeling last season to draw attention to the oppression of black people and people of color in the U.S., the now-unemployed quarterback risked his career. At a rally scheduled for Wednesday at NFL headquarters in New York City, others will stand up for him.

Organizers of the “United We Stand Rally for Colin Kaepernick,” a joint effort of many civil rights organizations and activists, hope to apply pressure to top decision-makers in the league that has shut out the accomplished passer after his peaceful and impactful political protest. They aim to both help Kaepernick get back in the game and become game-changers.

In recent weeks, the groundswell of support for Kaepernick has manifested in groups calling for a boycott of professional sports’ most successful and powerful league. The NAACP has implored people to withhold their support unless the NFL finds a landing spot for the activist-athlete. On Aug. 19 in Brooklyn, New York, members of the New York Police Department came together to back Kaepernick. Through online petitions, videos and social media, fans are pushing the NFL to let Kaepernick return to work.

Activists are among the growing list of people nationwide who share a belief about Kaepernick first espoused by some African-American players: that teams have effectively blackballed him because of his activism. But for the rally’s planners, the day will be as much about continuing the struggle in an attempt to fix the problems that prompted Kaepernick to take a knee as it is pushing for a team to sign him. Kaepernick has come to represent much more than just himself.

“He’s a modern-day Rosa Parks and Muhammad Ali all in one,” said Stephen A. Green, one of the event’s lead organizers. “When you think about what he has put on the line for himself personally, with what he could lose and what he has already gone through, that’s not [hyperbole]. He has risked a lot to elevate the issues that affect black and brown bodies in America. For our community, we can’t afford to let him be silenced.”

Green is president of The People’s Consortium, a civil rights group committed to nonviolent change. He spearheaded the effort to bring together activists in a show of support for the former San Francisco 49ers starter, who, despite being only 29 and having the fifth-best touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio of all time — better than many former NFL stars, including Steve Young, Peyton Manning and Tony Romo — is not on a roster with Week 1 of the regular season kicking off in less than three weeks. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, political strategist and CNN commentator Symone D. Sanders and SiriusXM radio host Mark Thompson are among the 20 organizing partners listed for the rally, which is scheduled for 5 p.m. at 345 Park Ave. — the address of the NFL’s league offices.

Although the coat of arms of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity Inc., a Greek-letter fraternity of which Kaepernick is a member, appears on the official flyer for the event, the organization is not a partner. Green and several other organizers, though, are members of the fraternity, and its leader, Grand Polemarch Thomas L. Battles Jr., recently wrote a letter to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell urging him to send a “clear and unmistakable signal from the league office” to owners that would result in an “equitable resolution to Mr. Kaepernick’s plight.”

The program is scheduled to include several speakers who are on the front lines of the ongoing battle for racial justice. Kaepernick does not plan to attend the rally, but he appreciates the support more than his supporters could possibly understand, one of his representatives wrote to The Undefeated in a text message last week. Ever since Kaepernick was first pictured sitting during the anthem before a preseason game last Aug. 26 (beginning Aug. 14, he also sat for two previous preseason games), activists have closely monitored his situation. Buoyed by Kaepernick’s eagerness to use his platform to promote the Black Lives Matter movement, many activists for some time have discussed how they could best partner to help him.

As Kaepernick remained sidelined over the past few months, “we were all pretty fed up,” said Thompson, host of Make it Plain on SiriusXM Progress 127. “Obviously, he’s not being given an opportunity because he took a knee on behalf of many sisters and brothers who lost their lives to police. We felt that he took a knee for us, so we need to stand up for him.”

Throughout his time on the national stage, Kaepernick has maintained a dialogue with activists. They’ve kept him informed about their objectives and strategies, encouraging him to continue fighting alongside them.

“We’re here because he has come to really symbolize everything about this Black Lives Matter movement,” Thompson said. “And what we [activists] are most appreciative of is that he showed courage in doing that. One of the challenges we’ve faced is getting more black athletes to do what Colin is doing.

“When you realize how much attention professional athletes get, how much our young people look up to them, you understand how important it is to have them involved. Whenever we have black athletes stand up in a way that other great athletes of the past have — Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Curt Flood, John Carlos and Tommie Smith — it’s going to help. We need to show that to young people. That’s what Colin has done.”

Activists admire Kaepernick for never cowering to public pressure. And his resolve has drawn activists to him.

“Kaep has been unapologetic about his views and his activism throughout the last year, which is visible to anyone monitoring his Twitter account or where he is going and what he is doing,” said Sarah J. Jackson, an assistant professor of communications studies at Northeastern University and author of the book Black Celebrity, Racial Politics, and the Press: Framing Dissent.

“Kaep was very deliberate about staying in the public eye. It’s also relevant, of course, that Kaepernick’s activism came in the middle of the mainstream visibility of the Black Lives Matter movement and several high-profile police killings, as well as alongside the rise of a newly emboldened far-right that focuses a lot of energy on publicly attacking those that critique police or make outspoken stances against anti-black racism.”

Kaepernick’s anthem protest and efforts on behalf of the underprivileged triggered a wave of social activism in sports unlike anything seen since the 1960s. Players didn’t consult with Kaepernick, several said, on whether to protest and what actions to take to uplift the African-American community, and there’s no official coordinated effort among players throughout the league, although some talk informally about their plans.

Kaepernick’s actions, however, prompted players to ask, “What can I do to help make a difference?” Miami Dolphins safety Michael Thomas said. “When you see what he did, for a lot of guys, it made you want to educate yourself.”

Thomas, who also knelt last season during the anthem, has been involved in projects in South Florida, and he helped provide clean water to a village in Haiti. Like many of the NFL’s politically active players, Thomas expressed frustration that the anthem protest, in his view, became distorted. “It was about a lot more than that,” Thomas said. “Guys were getting out there and doing work to help people. A lot of that got lost.”

Louis Moore agrees. Moore, an associate professor at Grand Valley State University, is the author of two soon-to-be-released books: We Will Win the Day: The Civil Rights Movement, the Black Athlete, and the Quest for Equality and I Fight for a Living: Boxing and the Battle for Black Manhood, 1880-1915.

“I don’t think society has given police brutality its right due as a civil rights issue,” Moore said. “In some ways, the focus on whether [Kaepernick is] going to sit or not does overshadow his earlier message of police brutality. We’re now just concerned about the protest.”

Few players have been as politically active as Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins, who has met with government officials about building trust between communities and police. Jenkins, whose anthem protest continues this season, called owners “cowards” for their aversion to signing Kaepernick, whose standing in the movement will only increase the longer he remains on the outside looking in, the Pro Bowl defensive back said.

“Last year, the people who were against Kaepernick were probably making the most noise, and now you have the reverse,” Jenkins said. “So keeping him out of the league, you think that things are going to smooth over. But in actuality, you’re having a bigger uproar from people who want to see him have a job. Especially if him not having a job is solely on his political stance.”

Last week, outspoken Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett revealed publicly what many African-American players have said privately since early in the 2016 season: that the conversation of the anthem protest would change if white players became part of the movement.

“It would take a white player to really get things changed,” Bennett said on ESPN’s SC6, “because when somebody from the other side understands and they step up and they speak up about it … it would change the whole conversation. Because when you bring somebody who doesn’t have to be a part of [the] conversation, making himself vulnerable in front of it, I think when that happens, things will really take a jump.”

Eagles defensive end Chris Long answered the call. As Jenkins kept his fist raised on Aug. 17 during the national anthem before a preseason game against the Buffalo Bills, Long kept his hand on Jenkins’ back.

“I’ve heard a lot of people say you need white athletes to get involved in the anthem protests,” Long said. “I’ve said before I’ll never kneel for an anthem, because the flag means something different for everybody in this country, but I support my peers. And if you don’t see why you need allies for people that are fighting for equality right now, I don’t think you’ll ever see it. So my thing is, Malcolm is a leader, and I’m here to show support as a white athlete.”

After Long made the first step, Seahawks center Justin Britt followed. During the Seahawks’ preseason victory over the Minnesota Vikings on Friday night, Britt stood next to Bennett during the anthem.

Long is a native of Charlottesville, Virginia. The recent violence there, along with President Donald Trump’s shocking response to it, has elevated the nation’s discussion about race to a new level.

Kaepernick and others have worked hard to shine a light on the wrongheaded thinking that resulted in the unrest. After Charlottesville, perhaps more people now understand why athletes have taken a stand, but what happened there “didn’t really validate it for me,” Jenkins said. “I felt comfortable in my decision. And maybe some other people, who somehow convinced themselves that there are no issues of race in this country, [now know] that it’s pretty evident that there still is.”

Liner Notes

Undefeated Senior Writer Jerry Bembry and ESPN.com Staff Writer Tim McManus contributed to this report.

Jason Reid is the senior NFL writer at The Undefeated. He enjoys watching sports, especially any games involving his son and daughter.