By DeMAURICE SMITH
When we engage in a dialogue about the meaning of our own history, we have to accept that this history can have both an empowering and corrupting influence on all of us. The real issue isn’t simply the existence of the historical fact, but also the significance that we attach to it.
However, every now and then, we can identify an event that is indisputably empowering and the significance of it is universally accepted as something that impacted the course of our nation’s history.
Aug. 28, 2013 marks the 50th anniversary of one such event: The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The March was the vision of A. Philip Randolph, the Union leader of the Brotherhood of the Sleeping Care Porters, who drew the support of not only Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and future Congressman John Lewis, but hundreds of thousands who chose this day to make their statement, voice their support and leave their mark on the history that they committed themselves to create.
The significance that I attach to this is rooted in the fact that everyone on that day chose to participate in a movement despite not knowing how this bold story would end. Medgar Evers had been assassinated just two months prior to the March and six little girls would die in a Birmingham church due to a coward’s bomb only a month after the March. These were by no means safe times. In fact one of the thousands who made that March that day was my father, my mother, pregnant with me stayed home uncertain of the outcome of a daring public display that was opposed by several public officials. When you ask my father why he went, he simply says: “I had to go.”
Today, our fear should be that as generations move on, we forget or fail to recognize the significance of bold steps by ordinary and extraordinary people who dare to make history and thus fail to seize our own days for a better future. The only way to overcome that fear is to employ just some of the same courage that we are blessed to remember occurred 50 years ago.
Our nation’s love of sports has made professional athletes some of the most visible figures in America’s social change. We hold up icons such as Jackie Robinson, Jesse Owens and Kenny Washington because we understand that fighting for equality is our duty, and because driving progress is a legacy of which we are proud. We draw strength from the significance we attach to their stands, their fights, and their accomplishments.
We have to know that there will always be a battle for equal rights, and that there will always be the necessity for a civil rights movement. The significance of that fact is that there will always be those who will need to fight for their rights and there will always be those who believe certain people shouldn’t have them and will commit themselves to taking away the rights as they currently exist. The reality is that while we can always hope and bear witness to “change,” we know that there is still work to be done.
In the most recent NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement, the NFL Players Association insisted that the non-discrimination section be amended to address today’s fight: “There will be no discrimination in any form against any player by the Management Council, any Club or by the NFLPA because of race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, or activity or lack of activity on behalf of the NFLPA.”
The addition of two words, sexual orientation, could have been easily overlooked, but their inclusion speaks volumes to our belief that every individual deserves to be treated and protected equally under the law.
The legacy of the March on Washington is for us to remember that it was a fight for jobs and freedom. That legacy means we will need the individual courage to act and the inspiration of others to act without assurances of how it will all “work out.” Dr. King knew and believed that, despite what others might say, the cause and sacrifice was not only right but the dedication to others (some not yet born) required it. Our actions must become the pathway to realizing his continued dream of equality for all.
DeMaurice Smith is executive director of the NFL Players Association and is responsible for empowering, protecting and improving the lives of members past, present and future.