The entire Garfield High School football team and cheerleading team kneel in protest during the national anthem on Friday, September 23, 2016 (Lauren Frohne/The Seattle Times)
Remembering the late Muhammad Ali, New York Times reporter Robert Lipsyte described how the brash young champion, who stood for civil rights and social justice early in his career, was morphed by the media and his admirers into "something of a secular saint" and "a legend in soft focus" by the time of his death.
It’s also an apt description of what the scholar Cornel West has described as the "Santa Clausification" of another "legend in soft focus," the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Reduced to a collection of sound bites, King, in many ways, stands today a caricature of the movement he helped to define, disconnected from the struggle and sacrifice that was needed to carry it forward.
Lost in the hagiography surrounding figures such as King and Ali is the radical call to action they made.
This is what makes the current flap over San Francisco 49ers Quarterback Colin Kaepernick so interesting. Kaepernick continues to face a torrent of criticism for his decision not to stand during the national anthem in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter Movement. On Friday Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg issued a formal apology calling "inappropriately dismissive and harsh" her recent comments that athletes, like Kaepernick, have the right to protest, "if they want to be stupid."
Ginsburg's remarks would not have been as stinging if they only applied to professional athletes who were demonstrating, or if the issue so many athletes are protesting were not so important to countless students of color. In fact, Kaepernick and the larger Black Lives Matter Movement have inspired many students in colleges and high schools all over the nation.
In September, Seattle’s Garfield High School football team made national headlines when the entire team and the cheerleaders all took a knee during the national anthem. The Minneapolis South High School girl's volleyball team in Minnesota soon followed suit. Media coverage in numerous outlets including the New York Times earned the students both praise and condemnation.
In spite of the criticism, the action by student athletes has raised awareness about Black Lives Matter, and in Seattle has inspired teachers to act in solidarity with their students.
On Wednesday, October 19, more than 1,000 Seattle educators will wear t-shirts in support of the Black Lives Matter Movement. Teachers will provide age-appropriate lessons on racial and social justice in Seattle and in other cities across the nation on Wednesday. An evening rally at Washington Hall in Seattle will cap the day.
While these actions has been described as divisive, the teachers should be applauded for their courage. They have taken to heart the real lessons of the civil-rights movement as a mass movement mobilized for social justice. As the late theologian and MLK speechwriter Vincent Gordon Harding once said:
"I wonder how, with the resegregation of our schools and communities, do you get to know the content of anyone's character if you're not willing to engage in life together with them?"
Seattle teachers are demonstrating their willingness to do just that in a compelling manner. Such actions recognize the humanity of black and brown people, clearly signaling to the students in Seattle and the nation that the people who teach them genuinely care about the issues they are facing. They also provide a powerful model of civic engagement. Their protest moves civil rights out of the history books and models the type of peaceful civic engagement that has helped to produce change and expand our democracy.
Garfield High School teacher Jesse Hagopian has spoken out for the need for educators to stand with students against "the violence being inflicted upon the black community, and what our black students deserve in the school." Hagopian hopes the protest will spread, and I do too.
If it does, it will be a powerful affirmation of how one person can make a difference, and that many people acting in concert can change the course of history—even if their actions are not fully appreciated in the present moment.
Yohuru Williams is a professor of history and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Fairfield University and former chief historian of the Jackie Robinson Foundation. A public school activist, he is a contributing writer to The Progressive.