Justice  /  Comment

Famous Athletes Have Always Led the Way

The extraordinary are the ones who need to make things better for everyone.
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“You’ll never know how easy you and Jackie and Doby and Campy made it for me to do my job by what you did on the baseball field,” the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said to the baseball superstar Don Newcombe — speaking of Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby and Roy Campanella — a few weeks before King was assassinated in Memphis in 1968.

Newcombe was humbled, he told a reporter. “Imagine, here is Martin getting beaten with billy clubs, bitten by dogs and thrown in jail, and he says we made his job easier.”

Americans who are angry with Kaepernick often forget how black entertainers and athletes have used their fame to break down barriers of discrimination. Ray Charles helped to desegregate concert halls; Jackie Robinson integrated an entire sports league. Entertainers and athletes also helped to combat fear of black culture.

The billy club and the baseball bat were competing weapons in the war for the mind of white America. But increasingly, in the physics of race, it became more difficult for two objects to occupy the same space at the same time. The preservation of a society that prevented more black people from thriving ran headlong into an appreciation for the athletic gifts — and, by extension, the humanity — of black people. Robinson, Doby, Campanella and Newcombe were the easiest translation of what the civil rights movement aimed for: Give black folk a chance, treat us fairly, make one set of rules for us all to abide by, and we will do well.

It seemed a reasonable proposition: If you like me, and you like what I am, then like the culture that produced me.

These athletes saw the contradiction between American ideals of fairness and justice and their arbitrary application to people of color. A black person had to be a superstar athlete and beloved icon to enjoy only some of the perks that many white people could take for granted at birth.