Martin Luther King Jr., and the Black Athlete Protest Tradition

50 Voices for 50 Years Series

Martin Luther King Jr., and the Black Athlete Protest Tradition

By Louis Moore

Hank Aaron knew he needed to step up to the plate. By 1966, thousands of Black men and women his age had risked their lives fighting in the Civil Rights Movement. And high-profile athletes like Jackie Robinson, Wilma Rudolph, and Bill Russell had gotten their hands dirty too. True, in Milwaukee he pushed the Braves to integrate their spring training facilities in Florida, but outside of his battles in baseball, the first Black superstar to ply his trade in the South had been safe. It was his turn now. The concerned Atlanta athletic hero went to the source, the other hero of Atlanta, Martin Luther King Jr., to see what he could do. Certainly, King had a role for him. But King wanted nothing from Aaron. He only asked that Aaron, who played for a team that recently relocated from Milwaukee to Atlanta as part of the city’s move to showcase Atlanta represented a modern post-Jim Crow new South, continue to be excellent. In short, his presence, play, and personality proved integration would work in the New South.

King understood the power of sports, and he believed that the Black athlete had a role to play in redeeming the soul of America. On the one hand, he thought successful Black athletes who publicly persevered on the field of play, displaying athletic success and affable personalities, helped the cause by serving as nonviolent symbols of successful integration. The reverend reportedly told a reporter in 1963, “I wish that I had a lot more time for sports. You people in sports have done a great job in giving the Negro equal rights, and you have achieved that without bloodshed.”[1] But five years later, there King was, sitting with Harry Edwards and John Carlos in New York, supporting a proposed boycott of Black athletes of the 1968 Olympics. He learned that Black excellence was not enough. He told Carlos, “We’re not saying ‘burn it down.’ We’re just merely saying we don’t care to participate and see how you feel without us as part of the show.”[2] What changed? Black athletes changed. And they brought King with them. Although by the late 1960s, Black athletes gained more and more opportunities in sports, democracy in society sagged behind. Simply being barrier breakers who represented the race would no longer due. So, they revolted from the system. These athletes pushed King to see that Black athletes could play a dual role in the fight for equality; they could be symbols of equality and powerful weapons to fight inequality. 

Although pundits like to characterize the civil rights movement as an intense moment of athlete activists, most Black athletes avoided protests and continued to fight with their play. As Willie Mays said, “The Rev. Martin Luther King can’t play baseball, so he doesn’t try. Now how would I look trying to preach to people? I try to do my best with in my abilities and I think I’ve helped my people. I don’t criticize the movement, person or action because I’m no statesman man. I am only a ball player.”[3] But that was not fighting; not according to someone like Jackie Robinson. That was being content. When asked by a reporter in 1964 why more Black athletes don’t participate in the civil rights movement, Robinson answered, “many of them think they have it made. But they don’t have it made until the lowest Negro has it made.”[4]

Robinson was the first Black athlete in Post-World War II America to shatterthe mold of the barrier breaker. In short, he refused to stick to playing sports. He knew that despite the rhetoric of democracy that newspapers spouted whenever a Black athlete integrated a sport, or played in the South against white opponents, or simply succeeded, sports would not save society. Because of their status, Black athletes would have to actively engage in the fight for civil rights off the field.

Robinson’s success on the baseball field, and his activism off the diamond, helped King see the power of the Black athlete in the battle for civil rights. In a public letter in 1962 congratulating Robinson on his enshrinement into the baseball Hall of Fame, King wrote, “Jackie Robinson has stood as a stalwart against segregation and discrimination North and South,” and pointed out that, “In the North, Jackie Robinson has fought constantly to expose hypocrisy in northern school systems, dishonestly and deprivation in northern housing.” He closed his letter observing, “He was a sit-inner before the sit-ins, a freedom rider before the freedom rides.”[5] In this passage, King makes clear that Robinson’s role as a barrier breaker in baseball, often isolated, and constantly facing racist vitriol, proceeded the sit-ins and freedom rides, giving an inspirational example of the nonviolent courage needed to defeat racism.

But by examining Black athletes’ reflections on the civil rights movement, specifically their disillusionment with integrationist non-violence politics, one can feel the change that was coming. While Robinson continued to embrace King’s integrationist philosophy, men like Jim Brown, Bill Russell, and Curt Flood openly suggested that King was too tame in his approach. Brown, in fact, estimated that at least 99% of Black America agreed with the Nation of Islam (NOI), and “the white man had better start trying to understand him.”[6] These athletes learned that their status did nothing for other Black people. As Brown once said, “I may very well make more money this year than any Negro athlete in the world, yet I want just as deeply as the poorest sharecropper to be a free man.”[7] A revolt was coming, and Muhammad Ali was the first to break away.

Ali saw the flaw in integration. He knew civil rights would not end structural inequalities. To that end, he joined the NOI, and promoted a separatist Black pride philosophy. This drew the ire of King. In 1964, after Ali officially announced his affiliation with the NOI, King went on the attack. King claimed, “When Cassius Clay joined the Black Muslims and started calling himself Cassius X, he became the champion of racial segregation—and that is what we are fighting.” King asked Ali to shut up and play, and urged, “I think Cassius should spend more time proving his boxing skill and do less talking.”[8] But Ali saw the celebration of the Black athletes for what it was; a token gesture without meaningful change. As he once pointedly stated, “I’ve heard over and over, how come I couldn’t be like Joe Louis and Sugar Ray. Well, they’re gone now, and the black man’s condition is just the same. Ain’t it? We still catching hell.”[9] And it was precisely because he knew that Black Americans caught hell that Ali refused induction into the military in 1967. Ali’s bold stance on the Vietnam War, however, helped King sharpen his critique of the war and courageously denounce the invasion. Three years after criticizing Ali, King praised the people’s champion for his courage, commenting, “He is giving up even fame. He is giving up millions of dollars in order to stand up for what his conscience tells him is right.”

Moreover, Ali’s revolt from the system inspired other Black athletes. Between 1967 and 1968, for example, Black athletes on at least 35 college campuses protested continued racism in their sport and at their school. Most notably, black college athletes voted to boycott the 1968 Olympics, citing continued racism in society, and the government’s treatment of Ali, as two of their reasons for refusing to participate. And King, understanding the power of the Black athlete protest, helped these athletes articulate their struggle and demands. Although most Black athletes did not boycott the Games, they agreed to use their Olympic platform to protest American racism, including John Carlos and Tommie Smith who raised their fists in the air during the playing of the National Anthem to raise awareness of the oppression of Black people.

Fifty years later, after a long hiatus from activism, Black athletes are once again using their platforms to fight injustice in America. Today, athletes like Colin Kaepernick and Maya Moore are fighting to reform the criminal justice system. Knowing that King evolved on his thinking on Black athletes, it is safe to say that he would have supported today’s Black athletes. King understood Black athletes created the necessary drama to get Americans talking about racism and structural inequalities. And Kaepernick did just that when he took a knee during the National Anthem. But we also know this to be true: King would have continued to push these millionaire athletes to sharpen their critiques of capitalism, the sports industry, and their impact on Black America. King would see the billions of public dollars spent on building private stadiums and arenas for billionaire owners and question the morals of America. In short, he would force Black athletes to take a knee with him. 


[1] Thomas G. Smith, Showdown: JFK and the Integration of the Washington Redskins (New York: Beacon Press, 2012); 113.

[2] John Carlos with Dave Zirin, The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment that Changed the World (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2011), 82.

[3] Bobbie Barbee, “Wouldn’t Want Kin to be Pro Athletes, Admits Mays,” Jet Vol. 27 (1) (8 October 1964); 54.

[4] “Robinson ‘Pities’ Clay, But Hits Standpatters,” Memphis World, March 14, 1968.

[5] Martin Luther King Jr., “Hall of Famer,” New York Amsterdam News, August 4, 1962.

[6] Myron Cope, “Jim Brown’s Own Story,” Look Vol. 28 (20) (6 October 1964); 75-76.

[7] Ibid., 74.

[8] “Westmoreland in U.S. to Hush Viet Critics: King,” Chicago Defender, May 1, 1967. 

[9] Thomas Hauser, Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991), 103.


About Louis Moore

Louis Moore is an Associate Professor of History at Grand Valley State University and thevCoordinator of their African American Studies program. He teaches African American History,Civil Rights, Sports History, and US History. His research and writing examines the interconnections between race and sports. He is the author of two recently published books, I Fight for a Living: Boxing and the Battle for Black Manhood, 1880-1915 and We Will Win the Day: The Civil Rights Movement, the Black Athlete, and the Quest for Equality. He has also written for a number of online outlets including The Shadow League, Vox, and Vocativ, and has appeared on news outlets including NPR, MSNBC, and BBC Sports talking sports and race.


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