I don’t mean that King was any kind of a star athlete. The only sport that the young, roundish "Mike" King was known to excel at was pocket billiards, which isn’t exactly a sport (the golden rule: anything that you can gain weight or smoke cigarettes while doing is not a sport). But Dr. King understood with remarkable acuity the political and symbolic power of sports. He understood that the athletic field — and athletes — could be a powerful megaphone for civil rights and racial justice.
As a teenager in 1947 he watched with rapt attention as Jackie Robinson broke the racial barrier in major league baseball. A decade later, as Robinson’s career was winding down with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Robinson started to speak out for civil rights. Many people in the press and civil rights community discouraged Robinson from taking this step, worried it would tarnish his image, and even argued that as an athlete Robinson had no vocal place in the struggle. But King, by then the movement’s undisputed leader, said that Robinson had every right to speak because he was "… a pilgrim that walked in the lonesome byways toward the high road of Freedom. He was a sit-inner before sit-ins, a freedom rider before freedom rides."
An emboldened Robinson toured the south to speak for civil rights and became the most requested speaker on the circuit: more requested than even Dr. King. He would end every speech the same way, saying, "If I had to choose tomorrow between the Baseball Hall of Fame and full citizenship for my people I would choose full citizenship time and again."
In the 1960s, Dr. King also embraced, albeit privately, a boxer named Cassis Marcellus Clay (a.k.a. Muhammad Ali). We now know about their friendship because the FBI recorded their discussions. Their relationship was private because Ali, with his membership in the separatist Nation of Islam, was rebuked by the civil rights community. Prominent civil rights activist Roy Wilkins once said, "Clay is like a voluntary member of the White Citizens Council."
King and Ali appeared in public together only once at a demonstration for fair housing in Ali’s hometown of Louisville. But the connection was a strong one. In 1967 when Dr King, in the face of torrents of criticism, came out against the war in Vietnam, he invoked the champ saying, "Like Muhammad Ali puts it, we are all-Black and Brown and poor-victims of the same system of oppression."
Also in 1967, track stars Tommie Smith, Lee Evans, John Carlos and others were organizing the Olympic Project for Human Rights arguing that African-American athletes should boycott the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Their demands were to have Muhammad Ali’s title restored, to have apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia disinvited from the Olympics, to hire more African- American coaches and to see IOC president Avery Brundage removed after 32 years of iron rule.
Many civil Rights leaders were again appalled. Protesting the Olympics was unpatriotic, even unseemly. But Dr. King offered his unwavering support saying, "This is a protest and a struggle against racism and injustice and that is what we are working to eliminate in our organization and in our total struggle … No one looking at these demands can ignore the truth of them. Freedom always demands sacrifice and … they have the courage to say, ‘We’re going to be men and the United States of America have deprived us of our manhood, of our dignity and our native worth, and consequently we’re going to stand up and make the sacrifices …"
King even met with a group of the athletes weeks before his assassination in 1968. As John Carlos said to me, "Dr. King was in my mind and heart when I raised my fist on that podium."
Despite criticism from his own civil rights community, Dr. King was involved in three of history’s most critical collisions of sports and politics. Yes, the man sure knew his sports.
Dave Zirin is the author of the forthcoming “Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games we Love” (Scribner) Receive his column every week by emailing [email protected]. Contact him at [email protected] .