As we are just days into 2021, the year 2020 for most, if not all, will be one not easily forgotten for a myriad of reasons. The U.S. saw first a raging pandemic and then the death of George Floyd in May, which sparked a racial awakening not seen since the civil rights protests of the 1960s, led by the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
This also activated Black athlete activism in 2020: The WNBA and NBA players used their COVID-19 shortened seasons to keep alive the call for racial justice and in many ways keep the spotlight on racial and social inequities. They walked off the court and stopped playing for a couple of days after the Jacob Blake shooting in August. They also mobilize voter registration efforts and other community initiatives.
King’s son, Martin Luther King III, expressed the opinion in his September 2020 guest column in Variety that “a new era of athletic activism” could fulfill his father’s dream.
“When professional athletes speak out about racial injustice, they get the attention of young people in a way that politicians can’t match,” wrote King III. “When they ground their call to community in collective action, they gain credibility.”
During his lifetime Dr. King understood the power of Black athletes, if they choose, using their platform to stress the importance of systemic change in this country. Some Black athletes, such as Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown and Jackie Robinson among others, did this, often at the expense of their careers.
Dr. Harry Edwards, in a speech last year at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, reiterated that Dr. King saw sports as a reflection of what was happening in the broader society. The famed sociologist and activist added that over a half-century later, “The culture of sports has not changed.”
Dr. King “paved the way…to speak on profound change,” said PJ Hill, a former college and pro athlete, now Minneapolis NAACP vice-president. During the immediate aftermath of Floyd’s death, Hill helped organize a Sunday afternoon march from downtown Minneapolis onto I-35W to call for justice for Floyd. “I want to use my platform and have the courage to step out there,” he admitted, “and stand on the right side of justice.”
Black athletes, whether local or nationally, pro or college, male and female, made racial justice a top priority in 2020, added WCCO’s Henry Lake. “I think Dr. Martin Luther King would be proud of today’s athletes [who] stepped up and rose to the occasion,” he stressed.
“I think the majority of Black players today are very aware of the sacrifices that Dr. King and others [made], long before they were born,” surmised Detroit Pistons Broadcaster Greg Kelser.
Black athlete activism continued the spirit and legacy of Dr. King in 2020, but his work and dream remain unfulfilled. “We have a lot of work to do,” said Lake.
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.