Take MLK’s name out your mouth: An open letter to Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney
Dear Coach Swinney,
I’m a professor at Clemson. We’ve never met, but we work with many of the same students.
I listened to your comments on the issue of athlete protests on the field, and I wanted to share some of my impressions.
I winced when I heard a reporter ask you, a white man who makes somewhere in the area of $5 million a year from the physical labor and bodily risk of unpaid black athletes, if he would “discipline” them for making a political statement. Given that you and I both work on the former plantation of John C. Calhoun, the historical significance of the question is staggering and troubling.
To your credit, you said that you would not discipline a player for not standing during the national anthem, an act of defiance most recently started by 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
You did acknowledge Kaepernick’s right to protest, and you encouraged other players to exercise those rights if they want to. I was glad to hear all of those things. For a moment, I felt even prouder than I already am to be a professor at Clemson.
But then you started talking about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Coach Swinney, I really wish you hadn’t done that.
First, let me say that I understand why you did this. Your statements reproduce a long history of folks, conservative and otherwise, positioning Dr. King as the palatable Christian alternative to unruly black protest.
What better way to silence the profit-threatening specter of black athlete protest than by offering the image of a civil rights activist who protested in a way that was more “professional” and “convenient” for everyone?
There’s only one problem. There was nothing convenient or palatable about Dr. King.
In his speech to the SCLC board in 1967, King argued that “The evils of capitalism are as real as the evils of militarism and evils of racism.” He brought the civil rights struggle to the most public platforms at the most inconvenient times.
You did get one thing right about Dr. King when you mentioned, “He changed the world through education in the face of ignorance.”
On the topic of education, I wonder if you have ever read Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” It’s okay if you haven’t. Dr. King wrote many things, and it’s challenging to read them all. Although this letter was widely circulated in the 1960s, I find that less and less people are familiar with it today.
Perhaps after reading it, you’ll work with me to change that.
Like today’s protesters, Dr. King faced critics who claimed that they agreed with his ultimate aim of justice but simply disagreed with his methods. They said that they agreed – as you do – that citizens have the right to protest, but they felt that there was an appropriate time and place for it. Your statements encouraged athletes to keep their protest off the field. Dr. King’s critics didn’t say that his methods were “wrong.”
Instead, in the letter, Dr. King reminds us that his critics called his tactics “unwise and untimely.”
Dr. King began his response by reminding his critics of why he was in Birmingham. He said, “I’m here because there is injustice here.”
Coach, you may be thinking that Dr. King was in Birmingham in 1963 and here we are at Clemson, South Carolina, in 2016. You would be right to point out that our circumstances are very much different.
However, it may also be possible that your position as a well-paid and celebrated white coach has shielded you from some of the injustices that persist here and now.
The fact that our state leads the nation in women killed by their domestic partners is injustice. It is injustice that Clemson students, including most athletes, will face a post-job economy with record poverty and unemployment. The criminalization of the mentally ill and the exploitation of prison laborers in our state is injustice. The deaths of people like Walter Scott, Joyce Curnell, Ernest Smalley Jr. and Zachary Hammond at the hands of police officers were injustices.
The lack of answers and accountability about the death of Clemson student Tucker Hipps is an ongoing injustice. I could go on, but you get the point.
And there are also opportunities for change at our own university.
I want the best for our students that are also working athletes. But when I heard that we were building a $55 million dollar facility that won’t be available to most students, I couldn’t help but wonder how many other challenges at our university could be solved with $55 or even $30 million.
The insecure working conditions and low pay of our dedicated and excellent custodial, food service, and administrative staff is injustice. They work relentlessly everyday, with a positive attitude, running this university. But they also suffer a variety of ongoing problems and challenges.
The abysmally low levels of recruitment and especially retention of students and faculty of color at Clemson is injustice. In truth, the low recruitment of people of all ethnicities from the poorest parts of our state is injustice. The treatment of Clemson’s vulnerable international graduate students is injustice. The lack of a day care center is injustice. The fact that our most recognizable building bears the name of the white supremacist terrorist Ben Tillman is injustice. It is injustice when students protest these conditions and they are arrested, their reputations tarnished, and their careers threatened.
In the face of the injustices in his own time, Dr. King called for direct action, not press conferences.
He and those that fought with him brought the struggle to buses, games, counters, workplaces and other places that were deeply inconvenient and often illegal. Dr. King points out that none of these direct action efforts were “well timed” in the eyes of his vocally supportive but privileged and paternalistic critics.
Coach Swinney, based on your statements, I think that maybe you would not have liked Dr. King if you had known him.
Dr. King worked closely with Jackie Robinson, whose presence and success on the field was a protest. But his relationship with Dr. King became closer when he rejected the idea that his individual success was enough and that he should only engage with docile forms of protest that didn’t inconvenience anybody.
Dr. King also came to be friends with Muhammad Ali, who used his platform in the most confrontational ways to stand up against the Vietnam War. When people criticized Dr. King’s own stance against the war, he quoted Ali saying, “Like Muhammad Ali puts it, we are all — black and brown and poor — victims of the same system of oppression.”
As Dave Zirin reminded us in an article in The Nation, the two men also appeared together at a fair housing rally in Ali’s hometown of Louisville, Kentucky.
You mentioned that you felt that Colin Kaepernick’s protest was divisive. Dr. King’s critics also called for unity and claimed that protesters in Birmingham were raising tensions.
Dr. King reminded these critics that “Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with.”
People who are fighting for civil rights are tired of hearing that we’re divisive. And we’re tired of calls for unity that are really calls for silence and accommodation. Rather than accepting the false and deceptive claim that our tactics are working against unity, I would ask you instead: What terms of unity would you have us accept?
One particularly confusing part of Dr. King’s letter for you to read might be the section where he talks about his disappointment in what he calls the “The Negro’s great stumbling block.”
Coach Swinney, I know that you are not racist and that you probably hate the Ku Klux Klan. I’m also not a fan. However, in the letter, Dr. King writes that he had come to feel that the Klan was not the greatest obstacle to the advancement of black people. Instead, he discusses his disappointment in “the white moderate.”
I’m not sure if you would describe yourself as a white moderate, but you ended your speech by saying that you thought “Kaepernick’s intention was good” but his “method was not.”
Dr. King describes the white moderate as someone who says “”I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” In short, he describes the white moderate as someone who is “more concerned with order than justice.”
Does any of this sound familiar?
I think the most important and most challenging part of the letter for you to read is Dr. King’s comments on the church. Like you, Coach Swinney, Dr. King made his case on religious grounds. Only Dr. King arrived at different conclusions than you did.
To quote him, “There was a time when the church was very powerful — in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being ‘disturbers of the peace’ and ‘outside agitators.'”
It seems unlikely to me that Dr. King would encourage you to baptize student athletes on the field and then encourage them not to stand for what they believe in — on the field. Dr. King’s interpretation of his religion inspired him to challenge rather than acquiesce to people in power or profit in the face of injustice.
If after reading the letter, you find that you disagree with Dr. King on these matters, I think that’s fine. I actually think it can be a refreshing and important part of education to clarify your values.
If you do find that you disagree with Dr. King, as your comments indicate, please spare us the continued distortion of his legacy.
Dr. Chenjerai Kumanyika
Department of Communication