B asketball is my first love, but it’s not my only one. From the small town in Iowa where I grew up, to Chapel Hill for college, to the Bay Area and now to Dallas, I’ve been lucky in my life to get to meet a wide variety of people, each with their own beliefs, dreams, habits, and outlooks on the world. Interacting with different people with different stories sparked my curiosity about what makes people not only good at what they do, but good, period. I am drawn to leaders who set out to make positive change in their communities.
In that spirit, I’m doing a series of interviews this season with people who I admire from afar. I want to get to know them better and share our conversations here.
For my first interview, I got to talk to Dr. Harry Edwards, the sociologist and civil rights activist who is maybe best known as the architect of the protest at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. But as I soon found out, there’s a lot more to learn, and admire, about the man.
Dr. Edwards, it’s a real pleasure to talk to you. I can’t think of a better person to launch this interview series with. So let’s get right into it. You’re close with Colin Kaepernick. When’s the last time you and Colin talked?
Dr. Harry Edwards
We exchanged emails just this morning [Thursday, December 7]. And, you know, we discussed quite a few issues, some of which are confidential. But most of the time when people ask me that question they want to know how he’s doing and my response has been consistent: I’m not worried about Kaepernick, I’m worried about the rest of us. Kap knows exactly what he’s doing, where he is in his life, what he’s dedicated to, what’s important. He’s still in the greatest football shape that I’ve ever seen him in and he’s gonna be just fine. But I’m concerned about the rest of us. We are a society now that, to a substantial degree — and in no small measure as a consequence of who’s sitting up in the Oval Office — appears to have lost its way in terms of its fundamental decency, in terms of its commitment to forming that more perfect union. We’re now struggling to determine who and what we are as a society and where we are, where we should be headed, where we want to be headed as a nation. Kap doesn’t have that problem. He understands exactly and precisely who he is. He understands what he envisions as a more perfect union and he is committed to making the sacrifices, to making the statements, to doing what is necessary in order to get there — working from the ground up, beginning with the children and young adults that he meets with, the camps he holds, the conferences he attends.
I hear some people say they just take issue with the kneeling — with Colin’s protest style. To me that feels like they’re kind of deflecting from the main point. What do you say about that?
You know what I say? Go back and look at history. There has never been a protest by an oppressed minority in American society — not the Native Americans taking over Alcatraz, not Jewish people protesting neo-Nazis in this country, not African-Americans in any case in any era at any time — when mainstream America has stood up and said, “Amen, we agree with that protest.” When it comes to black people protesting, mainstream America was not for the March on Washington, it was not for the march across the Pettus Bridge in Selma, it was not for the Freedom Rides, it was not for the school integration protest, it was not for the sit-ins in the 1960s, it was not for the demonstrations in Mexico City in the 1968, it was not for Muhammad Ali’s refusal to be inducted into the military to fight a war that he thought was immoral, illegal and unjustified. There has never been a protest movement for which America in the mainstream stood up and said, “Amen, we need this message.” So it doesn’t make any difference what Colin Kaepernick’s protest style is. If he took a knee on the sidewalk outside of the stadium before the game during the playing of “Chopsticks” and said, “I’m protesting injustice and racism in America, I’m protesting unconscionable incarceration rates, I’m protesting the fact that a black person has three times the chances of being shot by a police officer than a white person in America, I’m protesting what is happening in this society as far as black educational opportunities and the enforcement of black human and civil rights,” you would have an outcry. So when it comes down to people critiquing Colin’s protest style, I ask them one question: Name me one black protest that America has been in favor of. And you know what I get? Crickets. Nothing. They can’t come up with one, because there’s never been one. Therefore, it doesn’t make any difference what Colin’s protest style is. Just shut up and play football — that’s what they really want us to do. They want us to sit down and shut up. That is the reality of protest. And Colin’s not gonna do that.
Nor should he have to. Do you think there’s another sports story right now that isn’t getting enough attention?
I think that the issue of African-Americans in sports’ higher positions really needs to be looked at. I look at Richard Lapchick’s quote-unquote report card on diversity in the NFL, for example. This year the NFL got an A because we have eight black head coaches — equal to the highest number ever in the league — and 43 African-Americans in high positions such as GM and vice president and so forth. But I look at that and wonder, How could one grade it at all? And secondly, What is the meaning of the grade? Because unless you are telling me that Kap is still on the street because those 43 VPs and GMs and eight head coaches all agree with Jerry Jones and Donald Trump that the players who are protesting the summary execution of black people in the streets of this country are “sons of bitches,” then I have to believe that they’re in position but they don’t have power.
You know, there’s a difference between change and progress. Eight head coaches and 43 presidents and GMs and vice presidents, and so forth, is change. But it’s not necessarily progress — unless there’s a carrying over of power and authority in those positions. I’m looking at Kaepernick on the street and that tells me something. It tells me that those people in those higher positions are not exercising authority and power.
We’re hearing, Well they got black coaches and they got black GMs, so if they are not bringing Kap in, then there must be something wrong in terms of his ability to play. You know what? That’s nonsense. You’re telling me that Kaepernick is the worst quarterback prospect that the NFL could call in? You’re telling me that Colin Kaepernick is not only worse than the 32 starters, the 32 backups and the 32 clipboard holders that are occupying quarterback positions in the NFL today, but that he’s so much worse than them that he doesn’t even deserve a tryout for a position? That’s nonsense.
And I’m not saying that getting Kaepernick back into the league is the whole answer to this situation. But I’m saying that by him being on the street — it’s an indication of where we are in terms of the state of diversity in the league. To argue that we could right this whole thing by a black GM or head coach giving Kaepernick a job would be the equivalent of saying that the whole struggle around the Montgomery bus boycott in 1956 would have been corrected if a bus driver was just willing to give Rosa Parks her seat back. Well no, it’s going way beyond that. We have to look at this thing in terms of its broader implications and understand the dynamics of how these circumstances are being put together and projected in the mainstream sports media.
So don’t tell me that the NFL gets an A for diversity. You have a lot of black people in positions of authority who for a fact have neither authority nor power. And if they tried to exercise it they would find themselves on the street with Kaepernick.
You’ve spent most of your life following the evolution of activism in sports. Where do you think we’re at in that evolution?
Well, first of all, I think social media has had the greatest influence on both the trajectory and the impact of activism. I think that without the social media, it would’ve taken years for the activist athletes of today to create that revelatory climate that we have today. At the end of the 1960s, we didn’t have social media where you hit one button — S-E-N-D — and then all of a sudden you had direct connection with millions of people. Today, athletes have that. So Colin Kaepernick and Malcolm Jenkins and Anquan Boldin and LeBron James and Steph Curry and Eric Reid are in touch with more people instantly than Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, Bill Russell, Jim Brown, Arthur Ashe, or Curt Flood were probably able to connect with directly throughout their entire activist lives.
The second thing that has happened, particularly among professional athletes, is that unlike the conventional wisdom, which states that the more money an athlete makes the less likely that athlete is to take a stand, because of what he or she has at risk, the reality is that the more money an athlete makes, the more a team is invested in an athlete, the more a product is invested in an athlete as an endorser, so the more latitude and power that athlete has. So, when the CEO of Under Armour came out with a statement that Steph Curry did not approve of, Steph got on the phone and that next day Under Armour took out a full page ad in a Baltimore newspaper essentially apologizing. When athletes determined that Donald Sterling was unacceptable as an owner, they made it very, very clear that they wanted him gone. Within two months, Donald Sterling was gone. That kind of thing was absolutely unimaginable back in the late 1960s.
But something that has changed for the worse, going back to social media, is that the sports establishment can go and find one big-name athlete, who they can either buy or bribe or who may legitimately disagree with the position of protesting athletes, put him on social media and all of a sudden that message goes out to three or four million people. The statement of a big-name athlete who has been bought, sold and paid for, carries the same weight and gravity in social media as an athlete who is putting everything on the line in an effort to contribute toward forming that more perfect union that the Constitution talks about. So we simply have to be aware of that. It’s not a one-sided, one-perspective situation we’re in. We always have to be thinking and analyzing, What is the impact of this? What is the source of it? In whose interests is it being done?
It went very well because it gave me an opportunity to express the seminal impact and enduring contribution of black athletes to American society. People forget that W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington and Marcus Garvey were debating over whether blacks should accommodate to segregation, or rely on talent and tests to lead and lift the masses of black people into mainstream competency or whether, in Marcus Garvey’s words, black people should pack up and leave America altogether. While those three brilliant minds were debating those issues, black athletes from Jack Johnson to Jesse Owens to Joe Louis to Paul Robeson were taking on the world. Jack Johnson beat Tommy Burns for the heavyweight championship of the world. Jesse Owens took on the world at the 1936 Olympics along with 17 other black Olympians. Joe Louis knocked out Max Schmeling, a German who was representing white Aryan superiority. So while these debates were going on within the American context of whether we should accommodate Jim Crow, or whether we should put our talent to the test to raise us into integration, or whether we should separate and leave the country altogether, black athletes were taking on the world. Even the Negro Leagues won 60% of the All-Star exhibition games that they played against white All-Stars from the major leagues. Those white All-Stars knew that not only were black baseball players competent and capable, but in many instances they were superior.
When you move up to Jackie Robinson, he had already engaged black people in nonviolent direct actions 10 years before Dr. King took on the Montgomery bus boycott with nonviolent direct action in 1956, the year Jackie retired. He talks about it in his autobiography. Black people attending Jackie’s games were being trained by clergy and lay community organizers on how to behave when they heard the racial slurs hurled at Jackie by white fans. And how to react when they threw black cats on the field, or when they saw opposing players sliding into second with their spikes up trying to hurt Jackie. How do you behave in the face of that? Well, you do what I do on the field, Jackie was saying. You turn the other cheek because if Jackie got into a fight on the field maybe there’d be dugout-emptying brawl. Or if fans got into a fight in the stands it could spill over into the streets and cause an all-out race riot — and the next thing you know the town is burning and nobody else wants to play the Dodgers. So Jackie Robinson was our Gandhi.
The same with regard to athletes in the late 1960s. Muhammad Ali, Smith and Carlos, Arthur Ashe, Curt Flood, Jim Brown and Bill Russell were talking about a demand for dignity and respect — not just desegregation and access, but dignity and respect in the positions that they were in long before you had Barack Obama running for president. If Ali doesn’t demand respect for his name — Muhammad Ali … I mean he literally got in the ring and beat guys and said, “Call me by my name!” — if he doesn’t demand that, there’s no way that the American people vote into the White House a man with a name like Barack Hussein Obama. So the black athlete has always been a trailblazer in terms of where we needed to go and the process by which we needed to get there.
As an athlete, I’m always thinking about habits and goals and how to achieve the things I want to achieve. What principles and habits have guided you?
My entire life’s pursuit has been to learn to dream with my eyes open — to understand the terrain that I’m moving over, the price to be paid in pursuit of those dreams, those goals, and then to maintain at all costs the courage to continue that pursuit. And one gets to that space through study. Malcolm X said that history is the discipline that best rewards study. Rage is not enough. Anger will not get it done. You have got to be a student of life. You cannot allow your life to be something that just happens to you while you’re doing something else. And from that study will emerge clear paths that you can take to achieve the goals that you set for yourself. A life without goals and awareness and commitment is empty. And I see a lot of empty lives around me. I see lives that have been empty for years and people unfortunately sometimes don’t see it until they get up into my neck of the woods. I was fortunate enough to wake up, to become committed, to understand the dynamics of what needed to be done if my life was going to be meaningful when I was in my 20s. When I organized the Olympic Project for Human Rights I was 24 years old. I literally believed that I could change the world and was fearless. And I didn’t expect to live to my 30s, but that did not moderate one bit my commitment to doing what I did in the late 1960s. My late friend, Maya Angelou, who wrote the forward to my 1980 autobiography, used to tell me all the time that courage is the greatest of all virtues because without it no other virtue is possible. And so I think that athletes and others should keep that in mind. I mean, these are the things that Kap and I have discussed during and after his time with the 49ers — and I’m so proud of him in this fourth wave of athletes carrying out that tradition of athlete contribution.
That is really powerful. Before I let you go, let’s switch gears a bit here for a lighter question. If you could have dinner with anyone, who would you choose and what would you ask?
Oh boy. That’s a tough one. You know who I would love to have dinner with? Michelle Obama. I donated to work as a supporter of Barack both times that he ran for office. But I told him I made it clear that I didn’t vote for him. I told him I voted for the one whose name begins with an M because I knew that as long as Michelle was there he was gonna be all right. And because of the women’s things that are going on right now, which is long overdue, because of the racial issues that are going on now, of all of the political figures in this country today, including Barack, I think she has greater power and potential than any of them. And she’s probably also smart enough not to ever run for office. So if I could sit down and have dinner with anybody, I would want to sit down and have dinner with Mrs. Obama. But of course I would have to get that past Mr. Obama and I don’t think he’d say yes ever since I told him I didn’t vote for him — I voted for her. [Laughs.]
What do you do when you’re not teaching, speaking or writing?
You know, I have a place up on the Mendocino Coast in Northern California. And I go up there and I put on John Coltrane and Miles Davis — I grew up in East St. Louis, literally about a mile from Miles Davis. So I grew up with the music. Sometimes I just go up there and lay back for two or three days and do absolutely nothing. Just listen to jazz and maybe sip some Hennessy, some Rémy Martin, though I generally don’t start that until about 4:30 or five o’clock in the evening. At some point, you have to have a space where you can kind of walk away from it all. Otherwise you will find yourself beaten down by the burden of your own commitments. At some point you have to get into your car and drive away, and I was smart enough and well-positioned enough early on to create that space for me and my family. You’d be surprised that even in the most difficult times how much a walk along the ocean with a pair of headphones on, listening to Kind of Blue, will do for your soul. And a lot of times that is what you have to nurture. Not your brain, not your business, not your calls, but you have to nurture your soul in order to be able to get back to where you need to be and deal with all the other things.
Absolutely, I agree with that. So my last question for you is your advice for young athletes like myself, across all borders, all sports, who want to get involved, who wanna do more. What is your advice for the best ways to get involved and to make a lasting impact — not just do something temporary?
What I would tell young athletes today, especially in the power position that you’re in today — unprecedented in black athlete history — do you homework, study, be careful of who you align yourself with. But when you align yourself with somebody, be able to articulate the entirety of the challenge and explain why you are taking the stand that you are. That has been something that I have struggled to do for the last half century. And I think that to whatever extent I’ve been able to make a contribution, that would be a major part of it. Do your homework, dream with your eyes open, and try to make a contribution beyond the box scores.
I’m often asked, “Are you disappointed that more athletes are not speaking up?” And my response is always no. I’m surprised that the athletes who are speaking up have done their homework so well. Because that’s a hard one to get people to wrap their minds around — that before you step out there, make sure you know how deep the pool is. Before you step out there, make sure you look both ways for oncoming traffic. Before you step out there, realize that you may not be able to step back in the same spot that you left. So do your homework, understand the history, the dynamics, and the trajectory of the issues that you are dealing with. Look around and study what has been done around those issues, especially historically and in the near past. And then try to figure out, How does my voice move things ahead most progressively and most responsibly? Sometimes that’s a matter of joining with other athletes who are making statements, even if it’s a statement such as “I understand what Colin Kaepernick and Malcolm Jenkins and Michael Bennett and these athletes are protesting about because I come from a neighborhood where we have issues with the police.” And by the way, the police are not the issue — the issue is treatment at the hands of the police. Police have a difficult job. They are putting on that uniform, that badge and that gun and going out there every day with a pledge to protect and serve knowing that there’s a certain number of people out there who they’re committed to protecting and serving who want to kill them. That’s a crude description of the job, but that’s the definition of the job. And that can lead to the kind of problems that police lead the nation in: alcoholism, divorce, suicide, mental issues and so forth. And you understand all of that, but you also have to understand that a police officer in South Carolina literally shot a black man in the back running away from him. That’s what we have to correct. So you have to understand all sides of the problem, but you still have to come down on the right side of history and that requires study.
I know you’ve gotta run. It’s been really great to hear your perspective, and I hope we can talk again soon. Thank you very much.
I appreciate your interest, and you can call me any time. And I just want to say, I love your game. We miss you out in Oakland but I love watching your game and I’ll be following you.