This past Monday was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day—a national holiday. King was arguably this country’s most impactful radical leader of the 20th century. He was at the forefront of an expansive nonviolent movement demanding civil, human and voting rights for Black people, and reform of the inequitable capitalist system for all people living on the margins of society. King, who was assassinated at the young age of 39 on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee, while there to support a sanitation workers’ strike, has left an indelible imprint on sports and athletes. 

On March 12, 1996, Mahmoud Abul-Rauf, one of the most dynamic point guards in the NBA at that time, was suspended by the NBA for refusing to stand for the ceremonial playing of the Star-Bangled Banner, the national anthem of the United States. The former Chris Jackson was playing for the Denver Nuggets and had converted to Islam years earlier, making the name change in 1993. 

Abul-Rauf said his peaceful act was a repudiation of America’s long and immutable history of tyranny and oppression. He was reinstated after serving the one-game punishment, but afterward endured death threats and became persona non grata to NBA owners and executives. The two-time college All-American, a teammate of Shaquille O’Neal at LSU, saw his NBA career end at age 31. 

Abul-Rauf subsequently played professionally overseas after a short 41-game stay with the Vancouver Grizzlies in the 2000–01 season. (Ironically, the Grizzlies moved to Memphis a year later). His story, like Colin Kaepernick’s and those of many others, can be traced by following a straight line back to King.   

The 1964 Nobel Peace Prize winner sat with track great John Carlos and legendary activist and sociologist Harry Edwards at a meeting in New York City in the runup to the 1968 Mexico Summer Olympics, offering his backing when some Black athletes were considering boycotting the event as a condemnation of the maltreatment of Blacks. Two years earlier, he advised Hank Aaron, who was endeavoring to compel the Milwaukee Braves to integrate their spring training facility in Florida, on strategy and tactics. 

Jackie Robinson was frequently by King’s side at demonstrations, fundraisers and marches. In 1983, it was revealed that George Raveling, the first Black head basketball coach in what was then the Pacific-8 Conference at Washington State in 1972, and the first Black head coach in the Big Ten Conference (Iowa, 1983), had possessed a copy of King’s iconic I Have a Dream speech for over 25 years. 

The 26-year-old Raveling, now 85, who at the time was working as a marketing analyst for the Sun Oil Company, had been standing on the podium, surrounded by world-famous celebrities and luminaries. The college Hall of Fame coach simply asked King for the folded paper in his hand as the remarkable orator was walking away after concluding his famous address on August 23, 1963, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. 

When Kaepernick knelt on the San Francisco 49ers sideline on September 1, 2016, during the playing of the national anthem before kickoff of a preseason game in San Diego, he was following in the mold of King. It was the beginning of what mushroomed into a global symbol of injustice. He was 29 and like Abul-Rauf 20 years before him, protesting oppression of Black people and police brutality against Blacks. 

Kaepernick started 12 games that season, but would never throw another pass in the NFL. He opted out of his contract when the season was over, believing he would get a more lucrative deal.   

“When I first heard [of Kaepernick kneeling], immediately I ended up sending—I didn’t have access to him, so I sent something on social media saying, ‘I’m with you 1,000%,’”  Abdul-Rauf said to the Guardian media outlet last October.

“But my mind was—he’s getting ready to get it, right? Because history shows that any time an athlete, particularly a Black athlete, says something like that, whether it’s Muhammad Ali or Tommie Smith and John Carlos, you’re going to be ridiculed and condemned for it.”

Abul-Rauf was prescient in predicting Kaepernick’s future as a professional athlete. But it was what King had taught, once saying, “We must build dikes of courage to hold back the flood of fear.” Indirectly, they were two of his fearless students.

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