One of the most important lessons I’ve learned through my involvement with Project Pilgrimage is that we study movements past to strengthen and inspire us for movements present. A critical area of activism in our history has been through the voices of athletes. The impact of Muhammad Ali’s stance on racism changed the entire landscape of the issue around the country. The image of John Carlos and Tommy Smith raising their fists in Black Power at the 1968 Olympic games is an image that will forever represent the courage of the entire movement at that time.
Today, a few athletes have chosen to dedicate their platforms to speaking out against injustice toward black people in this country. We are fortunate to have one of these men as a member of our home team, the Seattle Seahawks Michael Bennett.
I had the privilege of interviewing Michael Bennett for a story I was writing about two events he sponsored this summer, one was to raise money for the children of Charleena Lyles, African American mother of 4 who was slain by Seattle police in June of this year and the other was the annual Black Power Summit, this year’s theme focusing on “Building Black Wealth”. As I somewhat expected him to be Michael was very humble in his presence and was deeply rooted to his beliefs, his work and the use of his platform for a cause larger than himself. He has recently made headlines for choosing to sit during the national anthem at every game as an act of protest for the racism and injustice this country.
Michael Bennett has said he gets his spirit of activism from his mother and got his education on racial justice early on in life. Both of his parents went to historically black universities and always kept him informed about the progress of movements. As he has risen to stardom, taking part in the first ever Super Bowl win by the Seahawks, Bennett has remained true to his values of social justice. He has continued to maintain a pretty low-key image in his work. He shared that over the summer he took a solo trip travelling around the country to several Native American reservations working with incarcerated youth one-on-one.
While what Bennett is doing is courageous and an inspiration to so many, it has also been an ongoing threat to the status quo as well as the belief that sports are not the place for politics. Former San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick has represents the very real threat for black athletes who choose to demonstrate their beliefs. He was routinely in the center of stadiums of tens of thousands chanting “USA, USA, USA” as he would take a knee during each games national anthem. Students who were part of the University of Alabama’s diversity program shared their experience of sitting during the national anthem and being yelled at by what felt like the entire stadium. They remembered it as one of the most terrifying experiences of their lives. Kaepernick’s contract has since not been renewed and he is currently a free agent in the NFL. No team will pick him up this year.
In spite of the threat to his career, his public image and his future aspirations I would imagine that Michael Bennett often looks, as we do at Project Pilgrimage, to leaders past as a way to draw inspiration and wisdom. Muhammud Ali famously said in an interview “when one man of popularity can let people know the problems he might lose a few dollars in the process, he may lose his life, but he is helping millions.” He was right. The overwhelming narrative in this country for black athletes is that they have no right to have a voice on larger issues. The reality of class in this country tells us that once a black person has earned a certain amount of money they have no business out at rallies, or in marches, or demonstrating protest in front of millions of people. However, this one is changing.
I can only imagine the courage and strength it must take for Michael Bennett to suit up every game day, walk out onto a platform in front of millions and to be the only member of his team to sit quietly, rejecting the trumpets that begin to play of an old song we are all taught to know and love. This is our history in the making. Looking at the intricacies of what is wrong with the treatment of Michael Bennett and of Colin Kaepernick is where we are going to find answers to what is wrong with our country at this moment. Through actively taking a role in supporting these men and their efforts is how we too can take a stance for what we know to be right no matter how big, or small our own platforms may be.