Editor’s note: This guest post comes from Rev. John H. Vaughn, Executive Pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. The photo above is of Tommie Smith, John Carlos, and Peter Norman at the 1968 Olympics, available at Wikimedia Commons.
Rev. John H. Vaughn
I am a sports fan. I grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts, as a fan of all Boston teams. I followed the Celtics, Red Sox, Bruins, and Patriots back when the only team consistently winning championships was the Celtics while the others were consistently delivering heartaches. I am also an African American, Baptist clergy person who now serves as a member of the clergy team at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. My commitment to faith necessarily involves a commitment to justice. And so while I was in Fenway Park for one of David Ortiz’s last games, I also joined Black Lives Matter protesters at Foley Square shortly after the death of Michael Brown. While I was jubilant after each of the Patriots’ six Super Bowl victories, I also advocated for the repeal of “Stand Your Ground” statutes after the death of Trayvon Martin.
For so long, I have yearned for Black athletes and entertainers to be more vocal in their opposition to social injustices, particularly against Black communities. They have the platform to draw attention and the resources to be “game changers” for a range of nonprofit organizations committed to battling systemic injustices. They have the cache and relationships to be catalysts for making an impact. But from the 1970s until this past decade they were mostly silent or invisible. There are a variety of reasons for that, including living in the pre-social media age and the hyper-sensitivity about protecting one’s brand and corporate opportunities (see “Michael Jordan” from his basketball playing days). Bill Rhoden does a great job outlining this dynamic in his book Forty Million Dollar Slaves.
Now, however, a revolution is underway. I first felt optimism about this shift when WNBA and NBA players wore T-shirts drawing attention to the unjust killings of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and others. That optimism grew into inspiration when Colin Kaepernick started taking a knee during the national anthem in protest of police shootings of unarmed Black people. And now, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, even more Black athletes are raising their voices for justice.
It’s not just that they’re using their voice. They’re taking to the streets, too. A day after some protesters in Atlanta destroyed property in response to the killing of George Floyd, I noticed that there were calls on social media to meet in our neighborhood—the Ebenezer Baptist Church and the MLK Jr. complex. My 18-year-old son sent me Instagram posts from NBA players Jaylen Brown and Malcolm Brogdon, among others, who asked people to meet them in our neighborhood to reflect and march non-violently. Brown and Brogdon invoked the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King saying THIS is how we do things. We will be led by love and not violence.
There is indeed something different about this moment. In many cases at protests we see that the non-Blacks folks are the majority. We see high profile white athletes and entertainers articulating strong support for Black Lives Matter. There is momentum to reduce the budgets of police departments and re-invest in local communities. One colleague told me the story of driving through the wealthy suburb of Wellesley, Massachusetts, and seeing an all-white crowd gathered in the town square in silent protest kneeling to mourn the death of George Floyd. There is a growing recognition that racism is not a “black” problem and that white America has a responsibility to oppose it. That is the good news….
… and yet, the death of Black people at the hands of law enforcement and white vigilantes has been (and is) relentless. The election of a Black president did not stop this violence, nor has the stream of video evidence documenting this evil for the world to see. The list of those who have been killed is painfully long. Sure, this time around some people are losing their jobs. But these are not simply isolated incidences, and so isolated and individual remedies will not solve the problem. Racism is in the water. We need systemic change. And we need to remember as we protest, organize, and advocate that this is not a sprint. In fact, it’s not even a marathon. It’s an Ironman triathlon.
How do we channel the present momentum into lasting change? For the growing number of athletes and their allies who are “stepping up their game” and entering into the struggle, I’d like to offer a few pieces of advice.
Being prophetic is not easy
The definition of being prophetic is to speak truth to power. When you speak your truth to power about police brutality and the unjust killing of unarmed Black people you display courage. Remember that in the Hebrew Bible, most of the prophets were not celebrated but were often ostracized, punished, imprisoned, and even killed. NFL players willing to “take a knee” a few years ago found out the hard way. NFL constituents were not happy and those in seats of power, from team owners to the President of the United States, deemed them enemies, “sons of bitches,” and flat out wrong.
Let us be clear: Even in the positive power of this moment, there will be negative consequences for your prophetic actions. Just ask Colin Kaepernick. Or ask Curt Flood. In the 1970s when he challenged Major League Baseball’s reserve clause, which bound players to the first team that signed them, he was out of a job. Yet his courage paved the way for the system of free agency as we know it.
Championships won’t save you from criticism, either. Bill Russell, the man who led the Boston Celtics dynasty in the 1960s, felt like an outsider in the city because of his outspoken activism. Tom Heinsohn, Russell’s teammate, remembered how Russell was unfairly perceived. “Bill Russell got tagged with being anti-white and rude and everything else,” Heinsohn recalled. “But all he really wanted to do was be recognized as an individual. He had been slighted several times, and he was smart enough to recognize it.”
Find strength in community
Because being prophetic is not easy, I encourage you to build proactive coalitions with other players who share your commitment to justice. Build bridges with owners, administrators, referees, and vendors who share your concerns as well, and connect with athletes in other sports. Use these opportunities to collectively strategize and to support each other in withstanding the eventual onslaught and backlash of hate and vitriol (make no mistake, it will surely come).
One of the most memorable moments for me that illustrates the importance of community came in the 1960s. With the Vietnam War raging, Muhammad Ali chose to be a conscientious objector and refused the enter the draft. He was forced to give up his heavyweight title and was denounced as un-American and unpatriotic. But Black athletes like Jim Brown, Kareem Abdul- Jabbar, and Bill Russell came to his aid and support.
You now have a chance to do the same. Come together and create your own messaging, platforms, and strategies. Pool your financial and brand resources to highlight those on the front lines and to advocate for institutional and governmental reforms that will make a difference. Lean on your faith traditions and be a moral voice for change.
Protesting is just the beginning of the process
Protesting is an important first step, but you need to develop a plan for the long haul. Be strategic in the ways that you invest your time, talent, and treasure to support the struggle and to eliminate police violence on Black communities. Do your research, too. Look for programs and reforms that have demonstrated success and bring attention to those. You have a platform that you can use in a targeted way.
Remember, too, that your financial “gatekeepers” work for you and not the other way around. Use your money to invest in organizations engaged in justice work either through organizing, advocacy, direct service, and/or bridging divides via relationship building.
And even as you work for change behind the scenes, continue to show up for Black Lives Matter marches. Continue to join with the grassroots efforts of those who are doing this work full time. Find a way that works for you to increase your engagement in an even more meaningful way.
A word of advice to the owners of major league sports franchises
Athletes have an opportunity to use their influence to bring lasting change to racial injustice in our country. But it’s you, the owners, who have the greatest power to bring change, because you are insiders and leaders within the predominantly white structures that need to be reformed.
Some might take a cynical view of any words or actions you take in support of racial justice. But I am an optimist. I was inspired in 2017 when many NFL owners took the field with their teams and stood arm and arm with their players after the President attacked Colin Kaepernick and other protesters. I was moved this past week to see the Denver Broncos joined by their general manager and coach as they marched and spoke to protest the death of George Floyd. Please continue to support your players and the issues they care about. Match their donations and speak out when police violence against unarmed Black people occurs. Use your celebrity and influence to work inside the systems to change how policing works and push for more accountability. Imagine if Jerry Jones, Robert Kraft, Mark Cuban, and the Steinbrenner family sat with local police chiefs and the unions, even confidentially, and said, “Neither I nor my organization will tolerate this kind of violence and we want law enforcement to be held accountable.” Do you think they might listen?
Please remember, too, that pre-game activities are not a neutral platform. The pageantry of the flag and the national anthem articulates and re-enforces one view of patriotism. It then gets conflated with the false idea that articulating dissent is “unpatriotic.” Unity as a country is a good thing and is to be celebrated. Acknowledging that there are limits to our unity is also important. It echoes the experience of Black soldiers who fought for freedom in World War II and Vietnam, only to come home and be reminded that there were limits on that freedom for them. If you want true unity, then work to bring systemic change to the persistence of racism in our society.
My mother used to tell me growing up that there are positive and negative consequences to every decision one makes. Once you decide, you must be willing to live with those consequences—and remember that not deciding is deciding. Athletes, owners, and everyone involved in sports: you have an opportunity to decide whether or not you want to work for justice and lasting change. It’s not just about the game. I love sports, but when the dust settles I am still a Black man in America who will continue to worry about the safety of my two teenaged Black boys. If we want to create a better, safer future for the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Black people like me, we must make decisions to act now.
Racism isn’t going to stop on its own. The racist structures and systems embedded in our country did not emerge suddenly. They were built over time. And ending them will take time, too. I’m encouraged and inspired to see so many Black athletes (and a growing number of white allies) speak up. Keep raising your voice! But let’s equip ourselves for the long haul and for the struggles to come, too.
About the author: On February 2, 2020, Rev. John H. Vaughn joined the staff of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta as the Executive Pastor. He will work closely with the Rev. Dr. Warnock, the Church’s Senior Pastor, in overseeing the planning and implementation of the Church’s ministries and operations. For the last nine and a half years, Rev. Vaughn served as the Executive Vice President at Auburn Theological Seminary. Auburn is a national leadership development and research institute that equips leaders of faith and moral courage for multifaith movements for justice. Before joining the staff of Auburn Seminary, Rev. Vaughn served as the Program Director for the Twenty-First Century Foundation based in Harlem, New York, a national foundation that advanced strategic giving for Black community change. He also previously served as the Executive Director of the Peace Development Fund. The Peace Development Fund provides funding, training, and assistance for grassroots peace and justice community organizing throughout the United States and select countries internationally. From 1996 to 2000, Rev. John H. Vaughn served as the Minister for Education and Social Justice at the Riverside Church in New York City.
Rev. Vaughn is an ordained minister in the American Baptist Churches, received his undergraduate degree from Holy Cross College in Worcester, Mass., his Master of Divinity from the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California, and is in his second year of the Doctor of Ministry program at Drew Theological School. He is married to the Rev. Dr. P. Kimberleigh Jordan, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ who is on the faculty of Drew Theological School. They are the proud parents of two teenage sons: James, who enters Duke University in fall 2020 as a member of their baseball team, and Caleb, a rising ninth grader who is a member of the renowned TADA Musical Theater Ensemble and a student at Dance Theater of Harlem.