When most people think of Martin Luther King Jr., they think of the work he did to peacefully protest for the rights of African Americans. However, one of the most under-looked and underappreciated things that King did was impact athletics in a unique way.
In 1947, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball and paved the way for black athletes so that anyone could play sports. Institutions have instilled a narrative that withholds much information so as not to ruffle any feathers.
The reality is life did not just “get better” for African Americans. King spent his whole life working to fight the good fight and part of his story that goes unnoticed is the impact he had on black athletes at that time. King knew the hold that athletics had on the country, and he worked to make athletics a vessel to push his movement onto a bigger stage.
Sports were the first time that blacks and white people were seen as the same in the public eye. King spent most of his life protesting the rights of everyday citizens, and he challenged big name athletes to follow his example. Some famous examples are Hank Aaron, John Carlos and Tommie Smith (Olympic runners who raised their fists on the podium), and most importantly, Muhammad Ali.
They knew he wanted to be part of the movement King was leading, so King pushed them to be a voice. Succeeding in sports was not enough. Carlos and Smith, both qualified for the Olympics, and King was with them when they said they wanted to boycott the Olympics for the civil rights movement.
King and Ali had a unique relationship. King fought for peaceful integration of black and whites people, but Ali was fighting for black Power with violence and force. Their relationship changed when Ali skipped out on the draft and was arrested. King fully supported this and agreed that change was never going to happen unless black people who had major influence were willing to risk their lives. Ultimately, that is what King did.
He was shot and killed in Memphis still fighting for equality. This happened during the NBA playoffs and right before the 1968 Olympics. The NBA playoffs went on as scheduled because the best way to bring people together is through sports.
King’s death inspired the Black athletes to participate in the ‘68 Olympics and use that to continue King’s mission. Even now, 50+ years later, sports are the most progressive parts of our society, and though they are not perfect, King’s role in the development of equality through athletics cannot be overlooked.