Carlson: NBA players kneeling on day John Lewis was laid to rest a powerful reminder of fight for racial justice
I missed the first hour or so of the NBA restart on Thursday.
Sometimes mom duty gets in the way of TV watching.
I didn’t tune into the night’s lead-off game, Jazz-Pelicans, until about midway through the second quarter. But I was definitely watching as Donovan Mitchell sparked Utah late and Brandon Ingram missed a game-winning three for New Orleans at the buzzer and the NBA was back in all its glory.
I kept watching as the Lakers and Clippers prepared for their night-cap showdown.
And yes, I saw them kneel.
Before the national anthem, players and coaches lined the sideline and linked arms and stayed there as the song played. Some bowed their heads. Some prayed. Others, like LeBron James, looked proudly and stoically ahead.
It made me cry.
Athletes kneeling during the anthem causes lots of emotions among Americans, but on the same day civil rights icon and longtime Congressman John Lewis was laid to rest, seeing those men peacefully protesting racial injustice and police brutality made me so proud that it brought me to tears.
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Maybe I was already in a weepy mood after watching most of the memorial service for Lewis. I knew a decent amount about his life before the remembrances from three former presidents, leaders of the civil rights movement, family and friends. But their words were a constant reminder of how long and hard Lewis and so many others had fought for equality for all.
Lewis began fighting when he was still a teenager, and by the time he was a student at American Baptist College in Nashville, he became a student leader in the sit-ins that were organized all around the city in the spring of 1960.
Later that year, he and Bernard Lafayette, another student who would become a significant leader in the civil rights movement, decided to take a Greyhound bus home at Christmas. Lewis was from Alabama, Lafayette from Florida, and this was before Rosa Parks or the Freedom Rides.
Buses were segregated.
Lewis and Lafayette decided to take their own freedom ride. Former President Barack Obama recounted the story in his eulogy during Lewis’ memorial on Thursday, telling the crowd at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta that the two college students bought their tickets, took a seat at the front of the bus and refused to move.
The Greyhound driver tried many times to force them to go to the back of the bus, and every time the bus stopped along the journey, the exasperated driver would get off and go into the bus station.
As Obama recounted, Lewis and Lafayette had no idea what or who the driver might come back with.
The young men didn’t have the network of support that would come with the Freedom Rides. They simply struck out on their own, hoping to make a difference and trying to force a change with their peaceful protest.
Sixty years later, we still need change, and that’s what those NBA players were trying to encourage with their peaceful protest.
Why did that make me cry?
I thought a lot about why in the hours since. I think the emotion boiled down to this: in that moment, I saw them not as NBA players but as humans pleading for equal treatment. They, like John Lewis, were simply people trying to make their fellow man stop and think about how we treat one another and how we fall short.
Yes, they are supremely talented athletes who are handsomely rewarded for their skills. But when they take off their jerseys and leave the arenas, the Black players are three times more likely than their white counterparts to be killed if they have an encounter with police and in some places, the likelihood rises to six times higher, all according to a Harvard study published last month. The same goes for the Black players’ mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters.
The players want that to change.
We should all want that to change.
John Lewis wanted it to change. Because he was battling pancreatic cancer, he didn’t get out and march during the protests that have been ongoing for months, but he said several times how moved he was and how powerful the message was.
You have to believe he would have thought the same about what happened Thursday in Orlando. His words when asked in early 2019 about NFL players kneeling during the anthem make me sure of that.
“There is nothing wrong with kneeling,” he said. “Before we marched from Selma to Montgomery, on March 7, 1965, we knelt. We prayed. … We knelt, and when we said, ‘Amen,’ we stood and we started walking.
“Sometimes you have to use the most simple means of engaging in peaceful, nonviolent protest.”
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK or follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok.