The unfulfilled dreams of Martin Luther King Jr. hover over Super Bowl LIII
A tour of his childhood home and the King Center reveals why protests must continue
“I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to give his life serving others. I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to love somebody.”
— Excerpt from Martin Luther King Jr.’s final sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church
On Thursday afternoon, a group of visitors sat inside historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta listening to a haunting five-minute excerpt from Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous sermon, The Drum Major Instinct.
The tour guide reminded us that King delivered this sermon on Feb. 4, 1968, just two months before he was murdered in Memphis, Tennessee. The clock in the back of the church was frozen at 10:30, when King’s funeral took place.
Bernice King, the youngest of Martin and Coretta Scott King’s children, sat on the front pew, alongside NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank and Cleveland Browns co-owner Dee Haslam. Bernice was 5 years old when her father was assassinated.
This was my first time inside of Ebenezer. I experienced a chill and flashback as I looked at where King’s casket must have been, where his father collapsed, sobbing. I glanced at the pew where Coretta sat, where my former colleague at Ebony magazine, Moneta Sleet Jr., snapped the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo that captured her grief.
There was so much history packed into this church on this day. The spirit of King blankets the Super Bowl: He was a martyr and an American hero.
Earlier, we’d taken a tour of the King family home, again the echoes were deafening. You could imagine the bustling aliveness of the house, the activity, the meetings.
On the second floor, outside the room where King was born, our guide told us that King’s father, the 5-foot-6-inch Daddy King, was so elated at the birth of his son that he leaped for joy and touched the ceiling.
Standing next to Goodell, I asked the commissioner if he thought that was true. “I’ll buy it,” he said. I wasn’t so sure. But there is no doubt about the historic arc of the baby born in that room.
Thursday was also the anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s 100th birthday. That event formed the basis of a question I asked Blank and former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue after the tour.
What did they think King would have made of contemporary protests ignited by Colin Kaepernick and taken up by players throughout the NFL?
King once wrote to Robinson and asked him to lend his stature to the civil rights battle in the Deep South. At the time of King’s death in 1968, black athletes were just coming of age as a force and had nowhere near the presence they have today in the high-profile sports of football and basketball. A few months after King’s death, Tommie Smith and John Carlos demonstrated on the victory stand at the Mexico City Games.
“I think he would support them,” Blank said. “I understand why in the NFL we’ve had so many athletes who have taken that position. Just as Dr. King described in his last sermon, the bigger challenge is how do you move from protest to progress. That’s what a lot of his life was about.”
Along with King, Kaepernick’s spirit also hovers over the Super Bowl. He is without an NFL team after engaging in precisely the silent, nonviolent social protest endorsed by King.
“These young men playing our game have reminded all of us and we’ve reminded ourselves, and we’ve reminded them that it’s been a collaborative effort — what social justice means, what criminal justice means, what equality means,” said Blank.
Kaepernick began kneeling in 2016 as a symbolic nonviolent protest to systemic racism and economic political injustices directed at black and brown people in the United States. He has been out of football since leaving the San Francisco 49ers after the 2016 season.
For Tagliabue, who served as NFL commissioner from 1989 to 2006, the challenge for players who use their visibility to protest is making clear why they are protesting.
“There’s a tension between advocating for equal opportunity and unifying,” Tagliabue said. He recently joined the board of the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality (RISE), an advocacy organization founded by Miami Dolphins owner Steve Ross.
In Tagliabue’s view, during the late 1950s and ’60s, the reason for protests were clear, the reason that Rosa Parks took a seat in the front of the bus and the reason black students occupied segregated lunch counters were clear. ”You knew what they were protesting, the guy who ran the luncheonette or the city that sanctioned segregated buses,” he said.
“When an athlete gets up and says, ‘I’m for X,’ it’s not entirely clear who the adversary is. There must be more clarity in your message, if it’s not self-explanatory.”
That, of course, is the challenge of the early 21st century. Racism is not the same beast it was 50 years ago — 10 years ago, indeed, two years ago. The beast changes form and is let in and out of its cage, depending on who is in power.
The further we go back in history, the expressions of racism were more tangibly savage. Athletes who chose to protest in previous years focused protests on their particular sport: Where were the black quarterbacks? The black coaches? The black executives?
Today, protests by athletes have moved outside the terms and conditions of an athlete’s employment. “They are protesting the terms and conditions of cities and communities they grew up in,” Tagliabue said. “That’s a heavy responsibility to be clear about what you’re doing.”
Kaepernick plunged a moral spear so deeply into the side of NFL owners that they had to do something, they had to negotiate a truce.
There would have been no Players Coalition without Kaepernick. There likely would have been no RISE.
Players kneeling was not good business; fans did not like the optics of black players kneeling, raising their fists and talking about social justice issues. Fans came to escape. Indeed Diahann Billings-Burford, the CEO of RISE, said a number of fans disliked the RISE presence at the Super Bowl Experience.
“You can tell me that now is not the time. You can tell me that what I’m doing is inappropriate, but the reality is these injustices are happening and now is the time to address them,” she said.
After the tour of The King Center on Thursday, I went to the annual awards banquet sponsored by the Fritz Pollard Alliance, an organization run by former NFL player and executive John Wooten. The alliance, which helped create the Rooney Rule, focuses on putting more African-Americans in the NFL pipeline as coaches and executives.
Wooten helped organize the Cleveland Summit in June 1967 when Jim Brown and a number of selected high-profile black athletes met with Muhammad Ali and offered their support.
Wooten said that he tried, unsuccessfully, to reach out to Kaepernick and offer the support of the Fritz Pollard Alliance.
Wooten said he wanted to have the kind of no-holds-barred meeting with Kaepernick he had with Ali in 1967. He said that Kaepernick’s camp never responded.
Would King, if he were alive, have been able to get NFL owners, the Players Coalition, the Fritz Pollard Alliance and Kaepernick in one room? Could he have worked out a compromise that benefited everyone?
Would he have organized pickets of NFL training camps and even the Super Bowl until Kaepernick was at least offered a tryout?
We’ll never know; what we do know is that King’s spirit, the spirit of protest, hovers over the Super Bowl celebration — and so does Kaepernick’s. The NFL can’t have it both ways: It has to find a way to reconcile the two.