Martin Luther King Jr. knew sports could help Black America change the game

On April 4, 1968, Wayne Embry was in Philadelphia when he learned Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been killed — shot through the neck while standing on the balcony of Memphis’s Lorraine Motel.

Embry — now a senior adviser for the Toronto Raptors — was then a power forward with the Boston Celtics. He felt gutted, unable to process the violent death of a peaceful civil rights icon, or contemplate facing the 76ers the next night.

Sports sociologist Harry Edwards received the news midway through a speech in New Mexico, disheartened by both the shooting and the people in the audience cheering it.

John Carlos was a new addition to San Jose State University’s track team when he learned of the assassination. He arrived on campus wrestling with whether to boycott the 1968 Olympics, and King’s death helped him decide.

The assassination may not have qualified as sports news, but to many African-American athletes the slaying was a seismic event, spurring them to recalibrate their relationships with sports and their country.

Fifty years after his death, historians point out that King, while not an athlete himself, understood sharply how the civil rights movement and the integration of pro sports shaped each other.

King’s evolving relationship with Muhammad Ali is a case in point.

When Ali made public his membership in the Nation of Islam in 1964, King criticized the fighter’s involvement with the radical Black nationalist group. But by 1967 the men had become allies, united in their vehement opposition to the Vietnam War.

“Dr. King understood there’s a dual role. On the one hand he’s OK with (Black) athletes just being excellent, but he also understood that that’s not enough,” said Prof. Louis Moore, who teaches sports history at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. “He (also) sees athletes have this power to revolt from the system at the same time, and make the same changes that he wants to make.”

In November of 1967 Harry Edwards, then a PhD student in the nascent field of sports sociology, launched the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR), aiming to spur action on racial inequality by organizing an Olympic boycott for Black athletes. Two months later, the initiative brought Edwards to a Manhattan hotel, where he found himself face to face with King.

More correctly, the two men stood face to chest. At six foot eight, Edwards towered over the five-foot-seven King.

“You’re a huge man,” King said, according to Edwards.

“No, you’re the huge man,” Edwards said. “I’m just here trying to learn.”

That winter, Edwards learned his OPHR could galvanize a fractious civil rights movement. While King is portrayed today as universally loved, that depiction doesn’t match the reality of his final years.

In the week leading up to his death, he faced predictable criticism from conservative white politicians. When 16-year old Larry Payne was killed by Memphis police after rioting broke out at a march King organized, the NAACP ripped King for failing to keep his protest peaceful. King also sparred with younger, more militant civil rights groups, who dismissed integration as a goal and non-violence as a tactic.

But in proposing a Black American Olympic boycott, the OPHR won the support both of militants like H. Rap Brown, and of King.

“There’s a direct connection between the rise of Dr. King and athletes battling segregation and injustice in sport,” said Edwards, now a professor emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley. “Dr. King understood that there was not just a similar political interest, but an organic relationship between what he was trying to get done and what was happening (in sport) going all the way back to Jackie Robinson, and before. This is why he endorsed the OPHR and why he was critically important to us.”

In October 1968, Carlos and teammate Tommie Smith would raise black-gloved fists on the medal podium at the Olympics in Mexico City.

During that meeting in Manhattan, Carlos felt star-struck by civil rights luminaries like King, but says the meeting helped clarify his own ideas about Black athletes’ role in the civil rights movement. King’s death helped prompt the OPHR to drop its boycott, but Carlos arrived at the Olympics intent on honouring King. His bronze medal in the 200 metres gave him that chance.

“I went to Mexico City to make a statement,” said Carlos in a recent interview with the Star. “All of that was gathered in my mind — making a statement that would be so powerful, but yet and still non-violent.”

A sniper’s bullet felled King just after 6 p.m., and he was pronounced dead at 7:05. The news reached Embry in Philadelphia shortly afterward.

“I recall just staring at the TV and the news accounts, just stunned that this could happen,” said Embry. “(But) disbelief is not the word, given the history of segregation, racism and hatred. You can’t call it disbelief. (Dr. King) showed a lot of courage, and there were those who opposed it.”

Late in his career, King disagreed publicly with younger civil rights leaders like Stokely Carmichael. Where King pushed for integration, Carmichael pitched Black Power. Their rivalry aside, Carmichael considered King a brother. He took the assassination personally and warned others would, too.

“When white America killed Dr. King last night, she declared war on us,” Carmichael said the day after the assassination.

Violence erupted in more than 100 U.S. cities, including Cleveland, Buffalo and Chicago’s West Side. Riots caused a reported $10 million in damage in Washington, D.C., and forced the postponement of season-opening baseball games, there and in Cincinnati, slated for April 8 and 9.

On Friday, April 5, the Celtics and 76ers were set to begin a playoff series. Boston and Philadelphia had recently experienced race riots, and King’s death had both cities set to reignite.

In Boston, a James Brown concert was quickly rebranded as a tribute to Dr. King. City officials ordered it aired on TV, hoping Black Bostonians would watch at home rather than trek downtown. Brown’s camp said the decision cost him $50,000 in ticket sales, but the concert is credited with helping Boston avoid riots.

Celtics and 76ers players met to discuss rescheduling the game. Ultimately the NBA delayed Game 2 to accommodate King’s funeral. But Philadelphia mayor Frank Rizzo and the NBA ruled Game 1 would proceed as scheduled.

“We wanted to pay respect to Dr. King, and our first inclination was let’s not play the game,” Embry said. “The end result was, we did play the following night. The reason was to keep people off the streets.”

The night of the assassination, Carlos spoke at a campus rally mourning Dr. King, feeling betrayed by the country he would represent at the Olympics.

“Wasn’t nobody preaching non-violence at that time like Dr. King was,” Carlos told the Star. “He was the most peaceful individual, and they take his life in a violent way? America’s got to do better. It’s got to do better.”

A commercial during this year’s Super Bowl gave the TV audience a pure distillation of the modern-day, mainstream image of Martin Luther King Jr.: colour-blind, declawed and propped up as a corporate spokesperson.

The ad quoted a King speech, his words playing over a montage of drivers using their Dodge trucks to help people out. In this recasting of King’s message, the civil rights icon and Dodge Ram owners are united in their devotion to service. Though King’s estate approved it, historians pointed out the commercial missed a fundamental truth: in the same speech, King skewered both the advertising industry and the conspicuous consumption it promoted.

Moore said the ad fit a familiar pattern of ignoring inconvenient realities about King, then showcasing a sanitized version of him that can appear in commercials without unsettling audiences.

“The whitewashing (of King’s image) is definitely post-assassination, and that’s just us not wanting to tell the truth about ourselves,” said Moore, the sports historian. “How would these conversations be today if every time we had Dr. King celebrations we admitted that (white) Americans didn’t really like Dr. King?”

Indeed, King’s final campaign didn’t involve using his influence on behalf of a corporate behemoth. Instead he travelled back and forth to Memphis, rallying with striking sanitation workers, most of whom were Black.

The strike also featured a King whose words didn’t match the race-neutral world view often projected onto him. In his final speech, King urged Black Memphians to boycott racist businesses and divest from white-owned banks.

“The American Negro, collectively, is richer than most nations of the world,” he said. “That’s power right there if we know how to pool it.”

Edwards says King’s late-career message also informs the activism of contemporary athletes such as NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick – his CFL rights are owned by the Montreal Alouettes – and NBA superstar LeBron James, aware of their economic clout and willing to leverage it to fight racism.

In November 2015, nine months before Kaepernick began sitting out pre-game anthems, Black football players at the University of Missouri threatened to boycott a game unless the school fired president Tim Wolfe for failing to act after a rash of racist incidents on campus.

The school couldn’t field a full squad without Black players, nor could it forfeit the $1 million in revenue the game would generate. Wolfe resigned and the game was played as scheduled.

At the time, sports and race scholar Drew Brown said the players’ near-boycott resonated even more deeply because they lent strength to an ongoing campaign for racial justice unrelated to sports.

“They’re recognizing the bigger picture, one that prioritizes their blackness over their identity as athletes,” said Brown, a former CFL player now teaching at the University of Delaware. “They’re saying, ‘We’re Black students first, before we’re athletes.’ That’s important.”

Contemporary athlete-activists draw from a playbook inherited from King, who in turn refined his civil rights strategies with lessons learned from athletes like Jackie Robinson, Edwards adds.

“These young Black folks are not gradualists. We’re not interested in sitting down and getting a cup of coffee with you – we want to own the coffee shop,” Edwards said. “Dr. King understood that because we talked about it. It all is interconnected with the very thing Dr. King was trying to do.”