January 15, Martin Luther King’s birthday, and, for this year, the day America pays homage to his memory with a national holiday, may not seem like a day to think about sports.
But while the civil rights icon wasn’t an athlete – save for a 1964 photo of him throwing a baseball in the backyard to his son, Marty – King knew the value of sports as an agent for social change.
King was 18 years old on April 15, 1947, the day Jackie Robinson became the first black man to play in the Major Leagues. King watched, as millions of African Americans did, as Robinson endured harassment and bigotry that came with being a pioneer in the fight for justice.
As King began his rise to pre-eminence, he found a supporter in Robinson, who began speaking out for civil rights near the end of his career.
King, in turn, gave props to Robinson, calling him “a pilgrim that walked in the lonesome byways towards the high road of freedom." King said Robinson "was a sit-inner before sit-ins, a freedom rider before freedom rides."King coordinated a banquet in Robinson’s honor in 1962 before Robinson was inducted into the Hall of Fame.
King was unable to attend the dinner because he was diverted to Albany, Georgia, where he took part in a protest where he was eventually arrested.
Just before he was assassinated in 1968, King told pitcher Don Newcombe, another Brooklyn Dodger Hall of Famer, that players like Newcombe, Robinson, fellow Dodger Roy Campanella and Larry Doby, the first black player in the American League, made it easier for him to fight.
King also embraced Muhammad Ali at a time when Ali was a pariah not only to the broader culture because of his anti-war stance, but also when the charismatic boxer was shunned by the civil rights community because of his espousal of separatist views.
To the consternation of many, King spoke out against American involvement in Vietnam and invoked Ali in 1967 saying "Like Muhammad Ali puts it, we are all Black and brown and poor – victims of the same system of oppression."
King also aligned himself with U.S. athletes who threatened a boycott of the 1968 Summer Olympics over the treatment of Black men domestically and around the world.
In support of men like Tommie Smith and John Carlos, King said "Freedom always demands sacrifice and ... they have the courage to say, 'We're going to be men and the United States of America have deprived us of our manhood, of our dignity and our native worth, and consequently we're going to stand up and make the sacrifices."
A few months after King’s assassination, Smith and Carlos lowered their heads and raised black gloved fists during the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner, after they won the 200 meters in Mexico City.
No doubt, King would have approved, just as he certainly would have given a nod to Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players who have protested in the last couple of years.
That’s because Martin Luther King Jr. knew that taking a stand for what’s right is always a winning proposition.
And that’s how I see it for this week.