Never one to hold his tongue, Colin Kaepernick is known for using his famed social media platforms to speak up and speak out for civil and human rights, especially when it comes to the controversy over America’s National Anthem and the ways it tears down the Black community. But Monday (Apr. 15), Kaepernick reminded us all that he’s not the first Black athlete to challenge the anthem as he used his celebrity to recognize baseball hall-of-famer Jackie Robinson on #JackieRobinsonDay.

Like many sports icons who used their platform to challenge issues of racism, diversity, and civil rights, Colin Kaepernick is continuing the legacy of outspoken athletes fighting for change. But some 70 years later, it’s sad to think that the same issues Robinson faced while fighting to break the color barrier in Major League Baseball are still being fought across various sports leagues today.

Many mainstream media outlets make Kaepernick the scapegoat, and note him as the first athlete of color to protest during the national anthem. However, he is joined by good company and a bold roster of athletes that saw irony in America’s message of “land of the free” when a percentage of its population are still held in bondage. Whether it be in the shackles and chains courtesy of the transatlantic slave trade or social bondage created by Jim Crow and the segregation era, Blacks are reminded that constitution continues to fall short in protecting their rights as Americans.

On the podium after the 200-meter race at the 1968 Summer Olympics, both gold medalist Tommie Smith and bronze medalist John Carlos displayed a raised fist during the National Anthem. Both athletes were noticeably wearing the Olympic Project for Human Rights badges. What makes them relevant to the conversation is that despite their world-changing black power fist demonstration, they were both offered NFL contracts. Smith played three seasons for the Cincinnati Bengals, while Carlos played one season for the Philadelphia Eagles as well as the Canadian Football League, respectively.

Although Jim Jones (the new co-owner of the Richmond Roughnecks, an Arena Football League team) has offered Kaepernick to join his roster, the NFL has refused to follow suit. Why is that some players are rewarded for their willingness to challenge a broken system that doesn’t guarantee, “liberty and justice for all,” while others are penalized for it? As a nation, a black athlete shouldn’t have to fight the same battles that other players had to fight in 1947, when Branch Rickey brought Robinson to the then-Brooklyn Dodgers. Robinson courageously weathered the slings and arrows of the conventional thinking of the time that celebrated racial segregation. Robinson and Kaepernick both used their platform to “un-stand” unapologetically and to challenge Americans to uphold the ideals of the flag.

The official Jackie Robinson website says:

“In 1997, the world celebrated the 50th Anniversary of Jackie’s breaking Major League Baseball’s color barrier. In doing so, we honored the man who stood defiantly against those who would work against racial equality and acknowledged the profound influence of one man’s life on the American culture.”

Will Kaepernick have to wait 50 years before the country can appreciate that he chose to take a knee to protest, among many things, the death of unarmed Blacks by police officers? For a country that supposedly celebrates the whistleblowers, why is Kaepernick’s message being swept under the flag as disrespect for the “Stars and Stripes” and the soldiers that uphold its banner?

Jackie Robinson may bring more clarification with an unabridged quote from his memoir, I Never Had It Made, winner of the 1973 Coretta Scott King Award:

“There I was the black grandson of a slave, the son of a black sharecropper, part of a historic occasion, a symbolic hero to my people. The air was sparkling. The sunlight was warm. The band struck up the national anthem. The flag billowed in the wind. It should have been a glorious moment for me as the stirring words of the national anthem poured from the stands. Perhaps it was, but then again perhaps the anthem could be called the theme song for a drama called The Noble Experiment. Today as I look back on that opening game of my first world series, I must tell you that it was Mr. Rickey’s drama and that I was only a principal actor. As I write this twenty years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made.”

 

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