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Harry Edwards on the path from protest to change

‘We want to make sure … that life-and-death issues of diversity are not lost’

Since the 1960s, no one has been more active at the intersections of race, sports and politics than Harry Edwards. It was Edwards, through his creation of The Olympic Project for Human Rights, who inspired the iconic Black Power salute displayed by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. Edwards, 73, who maintains a schedule that would exhaust most people half his age, has been especially busy in the weeks since San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began his controversial protest of injustices in the United States. Kaepernick no longer stands during the U.S. national anthem first sitting and now kneeling — in an effort to draw attention to the oppression of black people and people of color.

Many NFL players are supporting Kaepernick, as evidenced by displays across the NFL’s opening week, and Edwards continues to help define the agenda for a new generation of professional athletes active in the ongoing civil rights movement.

The challenge is the same that was the case back at that time [the 1960s], and that is that the framing of developments is critical to any kind of success, as far as a protest movement is concerned. If you go back to 1968, and the whole year that I spent framing up The Olympic Project For Human Rights, I did that so that when a protest was made, people would understand the message.

One of the things I’ve been trying to do, and not just with regards to Kaepernick but this whole [civil rights] effort, whether it’s the Seattle Seahawks, or whether it’s LeBron [James] and CP3 [Chris Paul] and [Dwyane] Wade and Carmelo Anthony, is to frame up the concerns so that their efforts make sense. It’s essential, especially in this highly polluted political environment where the presidential campaign alone has degenerated into such depths of swinery and piggism that things are lost, to show that these issues are of significance.

We’re talking about email, and whose hands are the largest and a bunch of other nonsense that has nothing to do with anything. We want to make sure that in this environment, these critical domestic issues — life-and-death issues of diversity — are not lost. Especially in the wake of the Trump campaign, which is not just a national but an international disgrace.

And I am not just proud of him [Kaepernick], but I am, and continue to be as I’ve always been, in awe of these young men, who put everything on the line in order to make a statement about broader concerns and issues. This goes back to the spirit of Muhammad Ali. This goes back to the spirit of Jim Brown and Bill Russell, both of whom were in their 20s and active athletes when they supported the civil rights movement. They stepped forward and made statements and expressed sentiments of support for broadening the base of the democratic participation in American society.

They may not always get it right. But they are trying to get something done. And unfortunately, most of the time when people complain about Ali, Smith, Carlos, Russell, Arthur Ashe, Curt Flood and so forth, what they’re really saying is not just that we disagree with the forum that you’re using because sports is not supposed to be political. What they’re really saying is, go someplace and sit down and shut up. I don’t want to hear it. So I have tremendous admiration not just for Kaepernick, but for this generation [of professional athletes active in the movement].

I went up and spent a day with the Seattle Seahawks, helping them work through some issues there. I know that the Miami Dolphins are working through some issues. Most certainly the Miami Heat, going back to the hoodie demonstration … that LeBron and D. Wade did, worked through some issues. So I’m extremely proud of all of these guys. But as I stated a number of years back — when people were saying, ah, you know, they’re making too much money, they couldn’t care less — the problem in the 1980s and ’90s was that there was not proper framing of the issues. So Charles Barkley could say, I’m not a role model, and get away with it.

People would say, jeez. That’s a heck of a position to take in light of what black athletes have done and said in the past. But the reality was that there was a period between the onset of the early ’80s, where the civil rights movement, for all practical purposes, was in hibernation, with no new movement having emerged to frame up issues, and literally into the second decade of this century, particularly with the election of Barack Obama, when there was nothing there to frame up the issues.

And so you didn’t have athletes speaking out as they spoke out during the civil rights movement and during the course of the black power movement. So you could get these empty, neutral, I’m-an-individual statements, and people would scratch their heads about it. They would scratch their heads because they knew that, hey, these are black guys. And whatever is happening in the black community, they could not escape it. But there was no obligation, there was no framework for them to speak out about it.

Well, Black Lives Matter changed all of that. All of a sudden, everybody, including the president of the United States, had to step up and ask, What is my position on these extralegal murders at the hands of police officers? What is my position on the fratricidal violence that’s going on in the African-American community? What is my position on these people — this madness going on — who are killing police officers? Everybody now has to make a statement on that, and have a framework within which they can make a statement and be understood. And they have to do that even if people, as usual, don’t agree with the forum they’re using to make their protest.

Jason Reid is the senior NFL writer at Andscape. He enjoys watching sports, especially any games involving his son and daughter.