It is difficult to put an exact date on the birth of the Civil Rights Movement. Generally most people agree that the seeds of the movement began in the early to mid-1950’s. Some of the monumental events that influenced racial equality was Emmett Till’s murder and the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
However, I’ve always viewed the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement about a decade prior, when Jackie Robinson played his first game in Major League Baseball for the Brooklyn Dodgers, thus breaking the sport’s color barrier. The way we look at the NFL today, that was baseball during the 1940’s. It marked a new day in the country for Robinson to successfully integrate the sport with the composure and patience of a saint in the face of racial animosity from fans, opponents and his own teammates at times.
By the time the 1960’s came around, athletes such as Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali and Jim Brown found themselves as spokesmen for the movement and took active roles in it. Though the athletes did take a role in the movement, the church obviously took a much larger role, with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference working with college students in CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) and SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) in marches, boycotts and grassroots campaigns.
Has professional sports leagues done more for the Black community over the last 20 years than Black churches?
— The Black Detour (@theblackdetour) November 27, 2017
So, where are we today?
In the new millennium, with the country entering a new era in civil rights, where do we find our new leaders or figureheads: in the church or the practice field?
According to the Huffington Post, religion is still an important feature in the black community, as seven out of ten black Americans read the Bible outside of Sunday service, half of the population pray multiple times a day and black Americans are not leaving their religion at the same fast pace that white Americans are leaving religious life. In terms of sports, there has been a difference in how vocal black athletes are in terms of social activism, at least at the beginning of the new century. This may have been due to increased patriotism after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, or the need to make their brand more marketable. It was not until the 2010’s did we start seeing more players take a more vocal role.
If the racial hostilities that have befallen Colin Kaepernick, Adam Jones, Serena Williams, LeBron James and many other athletes prove anything, it is that even the best and most recognizable faces of athleticism are not excluded from race.
Sparked by events of the past few years, like unarmed black youths being shot down and the election of Donald Trump, men like LeBron James, Colin Kaepernick, and Martellus and Michael Bennett have spoken and worked for community improvements.
In terms of which group will have a greater influence on the future of black America, athletes have a higher platform than someone like Rev. William Barber II. Their voices will be heard by millions of more people.
Yet, it is best to find the future of leadership in the black community in workers and activists who work in those communities, even if they are not specifically connected to a church.
People like Shaun King, DeRay McKesson and Johnetta Elzie have gained great influence in the community despite not being connected to a church the same way the ministers of the SCLC had. Not to say that they are or are not religious, but their audience gathers around them without religion in mind. We saw a shift by the end of the 1960s, as more militant leaders, not tied to a religion, became the new voices of the movement.
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