Monday, January 20th marks the celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 85th birthday. A federal holiday, MLK is recognized nationwide for his leadership and achievement during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.
While Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was not an athlete, he was inspired by sports and, in turn, inspired marquis events that took place throughout the Civil Rights Movement. He had a clear understanding that sports and athletes occupied a platform that wielded the power to make critical changes in the global social climate, from the American professional leagues to the international Olympic stage.
Martin Luther King Saw Potential Freedom in Sports
King viewed athletes like Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali as icons of political freedom as well as superior athletes. Though King was only 18 when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball, King later described Robinson as, “… 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.”
King’s tenacity and perseverance in the fight for racial equality motivated many athletes worldwide. One of the most notable expressions of civl rights activism in a sports arena was during the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico. Track starts Tommie Smith and John Carlos took the podium to receive their medals and silently raised a fist as a symbol of their continued support for the Civil Rights Movement and all it stood for. John Carlos was later quoted saying, “Dr. King was in my mind and heart when I raised my fist on that podium.”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. received a Nobel Peace Price for combatting racial inequality with nonviolence. He led the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. He was hailed as one of America’s foremost orators, most known for his 1963 I Have a Dream speech delivered at the March on Washington, which he helped organize.
He was also awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom and Congressional Gold Medal posthumously for his life-long dedication to civil rights and racial equality.
Today, many streets, schools and sports complexes bear his name, and a monument honoring his legacy now overlooks the National Mall. On Monday we will remember this great man and his tremendous legacy that impacted the lives of athletes and non-athletes worldwide.