Remembering the late Muhammad Ali, New York Times reporter Robert Lipsyte described how the boxer stood for civil rights and social justice as a brash young champion and was gradually morphed by the media and his admirers into “something of a secular saint, a legend in soft focus” by the time of his death.
It’s also an apt description of what the scholar Cornel West has described as the “Santa Clausification” of another “legend in soft focus,” the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Reduced to a collection of sound bites, King stands today a caricature of the movement he helped define, disconnected from the struggle and sacrifice that was needed to carry it forward.
Lost in the hagiography surrounding figures such as King and Ali is the radical call to action they made.
This is what makes the ongoing flap over San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick so interesting. Kaepernick continues to face a torrent of criticism for his decision not to stand during the national anthem in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has retracted as “inappropriately dismissive and harsh” her recent comments that athletes including Kaepernick have the right to protest, “if they want to be stupid.”
Ginsburg’s remarks would not have been as stinging if they only applied to professional athletes who were demonstrating, or if the issue so many athletes are protesting were not so important. In fact, Kaepernick and the Black Lives Matter movement have inspired many students all over the nation.
Last month, Seattle’s Garfield High School football team made national headlines when the team and cheerleaders took a knee during the national anthem. The Minneapolis South High School girl’s volleyball team in Minnesota soon followed suit. These actions have raised awareness about Black Lives Matter and inspired teachers to act in solidarity with their students, by providing age-appropriate lessons on racial and social justice. While these actions have been described as divisive, the teachers should be applauded for their courage. They have taken to heart the real lessons of the civil-rights movement.
The actions of these teachers recognize the humanity of black and brown people, signaling to students that the people who teach them genuinely care about the issues they face. They also provide a powerful model of civic engagement.
Yohuru Williams is a professor of history and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Fairfield University. He wrote this for the Progressive Media Project.