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‘Twas the 18th of October
Sunday, October 18 @ 10:30 am - 11:30 am
On October 18, 1968 Tommie Smith and John Carlos, Track and Field medal winners at the Mexico City Olympics held their arms aloft on the award stand in support of those compatriots who were being victimized by the civil unrest then sweeping the nation. They were vilified and condemned. Since the death of George Floyd civil unrest has returned to America’s streets. But has anything really changed?
how to attend
• To virtually attend, please Zoom in using room number 989 3107 9078.
• To phone into the service, call 669-900-6833, Meeting ID: 989 3107 9078.
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For those joining, please mute as soon as you enter the room, so everyone can hear. Please note, the services will be recorded, but at this time, there are no plans to share the recording.
Religious Education for children and youth begins at 9:30 a.m. Learn more here.
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Service is followed by Coffee Hour.
Story for All Ages
This morning I want to make a connection between the current Black Lives Matter protests to end racial injustice and similar efforts in decades past. I want to hold up some not-often-recognized heroes of that effort: champion athletes. I also want to hint at—and inspire your curiosity about—the ways we are drawn to, inspired and sometimes intimidated—even frightened—by physical and athletic prowess.
In October of 1968, I was a freshman at college going through a hard, kind of lonely time. A track star throughout high school, I found my way into an upper room at the student center where I and just one or two others watched the Mexico City Olympics track and field events. In real time I saw Bob Beamon break the world long jump record by a foot and a half. And I saw San Jose State sprinter Tommie Smith break the World Record in the 200 meters—joined by his college teammate John Carlos who placed third. The silver medal went to a white fellow from Australia, Peter Norman. As the three men prepared to receive their medals they conferred; the Americans had a plan—to stage a peaceful protest by raising their black-glove-covered fists—during the Star-Spangled Banner. But one of them had forgotten to bring his gloves. “Why not share them and wear one a piece?” asked Peter Norman. A simple solution. Yes! “Anything else I can do to support you guys?” Which he did by standing proudly with them on the podium and by vouching for them that day and every day thereafter for the rest of his life. There weren’t many others who followed suit.
It happens that 1968—like 2020–was a tumultuous year and a Presidential election year. It was a year when the Black Power movement was calling attention to racial inequities and doing so with a bold new hauteur. A few years earlier, the World Champion heavyweight prizefighter Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali, converted to Islam, and faced five years in prison—for religious and ethical reasons—rather than allowing himself to be drafted and sent to fight the peasants of Viet Nam. Millennials and younger people don’t quite get how Muhammad Ali captured so many hearts and filled them with so much hope. His courageous actions as a conscientious objector endeared him to the anti-war and countercultural communities and he was a high visibility figure of racial pride for African Americans by being very aggressive about race issues and linking them to worldwide injustices flowing from rapacious American imperialism. Ever the poet, Ali put it this way: “I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize but get used to me. Black, confident, cocky. My name, not yours. My religion, not yours. My goals, my own. Get used to me.”
It was out of this context that the sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their clenched fists on the victory stand during the national anthem. “We were concerned,” Smith stated afterwards, “about the lack of black assistant coaches. About how Muhammad Ali got stripped of his title. About the lack of access to good housing and our kids not being able to attend the top colleges.” Within an hour they were kicked off the Olympic team and they immediately faced consequences back home for challenging white authority in the United States. Ralph Boston, a black long jumper on the ‘68 team stated: “The rest of the world didn’t seem to find it such a derogatory thing. They thought it was very positive. Only America thought it was bad.”
The Australian Peter Norman certainly didn’t think it was bad. In the words of John Carlos, “Peter never denounced us, he never turned his back on us, never said one thing against what he stood for in Mexico City, and that was freedom, justice, and equality for all God’s people.” The athletes’ gesture had lingering effects for all three of them, including death threats against Smith, Carlos, and their families. They all faced economic hardships. There were no endorsements and few job offers. In recent years more folks have come to appreciate what they did, but for decades they got by mostly on personal pride and the strength that comes from finding one’s power, seizing the moment, and lifting one’s voice in support of the voiceless. Smith and Carlos were pallbearers at Peter Norman’s funeral in Melbourne in 2006. “I think society had to grow up to the mentality of Peter Norman,” declared John Carlos afterwards.
Fast forward to 2016: another Presidential election year. NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick chose a different gesture but with very similar intention: kneeling during the playing of the national anthem to protest racial injustice, police brutality and systematic oppression in our country. A few other athletes—very few—joined in. Reactions were polarized. But they led, slowly, to a wider protest movement; one that intensified the following season—2017—after now-President Trump said the owners should “fire” all the kneeling players. Kaepernick became a free agent at the end of the season but remained unsigned, which numerous analysts have attributed to collusion among the owners. A grievance he filed against the National Football League and its owners seemed to confirm that when it led to a confidential settlement last year. Though Colin Kaepernick remains unsigned to this day, his protests have received renewed attention and far more support following the George Floyd protests.
A lot has come down in the fifty-two years since the 1968 Olympiad in Mexico. The long road up from the horrors of slavery has been fraught with mistreatment and abuse all along the way. Other racial minorities, especially Native Americans, the Chinese, and Latinos have also been victimized. But people of African descent have always had the worst of it. Joe Lewis and Jesse Owens were the first nationally known black athletes—in the 1930s. Neither one of them could earn endorsements from national advertisers because the South wouldn’t have it. End of discussion. They were famous, but they couldn’t but a house where they wanted, enjoy public accommodations, or speak their minds. Fifty years before that: The Tulsa and Rosewood riots burned out prosperous black communities and chased the residents out of town. Fifty years before that Reconstruction was trying to build an interracial social order throughout the South, one abandoned in fairly short order when southern white gentry and their northern counterparts decided to focus on regional reconciliation and let the new free slaves to fend for themselves… and into social and political oblivion. Fifty years before that? The gruesome and all-but-inescapable brutalities of slavery.
So… some progress has been made but very very slowly. Moreover, lingering detritus from slavery continues to exist, not only in the legal and social code, but in the compounded daily stresses, muscle strains, and congenital ailments experienced more commonly among those descended from slaves. Increasing American understand these things can be attributed to articulate and courageous athletes, for sure. But another part of this story involves a group of scholars and activists who began sharing ideas roughly forty years ago. They called their work Critical Race Theory. They were mostly law professors who saw racism as a ubiquitous daily experience for people of color, and that a large proportion of American society has had little interest in doing away with it, because of the benefits it offers both white elites and the white working class.
Critical Race Theory is a way (not the only way, but an important, helpful way) to understand race and racism. Its adherents don’t so much teach it, as strive to practice it. In this way, Critical Race Theory has a lot in common with the restorative practices that Pam Orbach and members of the Beloved Racial Justice and Right Relations committees have been helping us all learn and integrate into church life here at ESUC. Political conservatives recoil at Critical Race Theory, but it has grown in persuasive appeal, especially over the last year with the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other highly publicized killings of African Americans at the hands of police officers. These incidents have led to a re-examination of race and systemic racism in our country. Here at East Shore Unitarian Church, Board member Mark Norelius led a book group on The Color of Law, studying restrictive covenants, redlining and other government-supported methods of maintain segregation and prevent wealth accumulation among non-white families. TV, newspapers, and other media have been running articles putting a spotlight on these and other vestiges of slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation.
Meanwhile, President Trump and his GOP allies have labeled all projects associated with racial equity, implicit bias analysis, anti-bias workshops, and critical race theory as “divisive, anti-American propaganda.” Last month they banned federal agencies from conducting racial sensitivity training. According to President Trump and his reactionary allies, acknowledging our nation’s history of racism is anti-patriotic and anti-American. His Executive Order on Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping sounds good enough, but it requires federal and military institutions to refrain from discussing any tough or touchy issues concerning race and gender. Confronting the truth about American history can be very upsetting, it’s true. So, President Trump has simply banned it, offering up instead some “Gone with the Wind” version designed for the comfort of white people unsettled by the truth. Well, unsettling or not, we here at East Shore are trying to work through this stuff, not avoid it. Last year the church read White Fragility, defined by its anti-racist author Robin DiAngelo as practices, often but not always unconscious, that white people use to reinstate white racial equilibrium and prevent meaningful cross-racial dialogue. Which is clearly the President’s intention: to prevent meaningful dialogue about class, or gender, or especially about race.
Friends and congregants: we have witnessed this kind of thing before, which is what I’m getting at this morning. For spearheading non-violent civil rights agitation, Martin Luther King, Jr. was targeted by the FBI as the most dangerous man in America. The civil rights and Black freedom movements were targeted, surveilled, and disrupted by the FBI. Currently, we know that some people within the law enforcement community have labeled BLM a terrorist organization which it is not. And we have known for a long time that racial justice work–activism, legal advocacy, even the sharing of information—has had a long and often uneasy relationship with the government. Ignoring one another’s pain and touchiness on these subjects and prohibiting open dialogue will only keep us strangers and at odds with one another. Would-be autocrats may want that, but I do not. And I don’t condone either. And neither does our church covenant, nor our mission, nor the Unitarian Universalist tradition.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, arguably the best professional basketball player of all times, said it all quite clearly in a New York Times editorial from a couple of years ago: “What should horrify Americans is not Kaepernick’s choice to remain seated during the national anthem, but that fifty years after Ali was banned from boxing for his stance and Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ raised fists cause public ostracization and numerous death threats, we still need to call attention to the same racial inequities. Failure to fix this problem is what’s really un-American here.” Yes. Failure to fix this problem is what’s really un-American.
Yes, Kareem. Yes, Jesse. And Tommie, and John, and Peter. Yes Colin Kaepernick. Yes, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. Yes, freedom and liberty for all. Yes, yes, yes.