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The Legacy Museum: Should Athlete Activists Receive More Attention?

Special post by Felipe Tobar, doctoral student at Clemson University.

Introduction

The 2019 MLK Civil Rights Trip organized by Clemson University through “Harvey and Lucinda Gantt Multicultural Center,” between January 18-21, took undergraduate and graduate students to Montgomery, Alabama, in order to foster discussions regarding slavery and racism throughout the history of the United States. This trip included visiting sites such as Tuskegee University, The Legacy Museum, and The National Memorial for Peace and Justice.

In addition to learning more about US history, my focus of this trip was (a) to identify how the Legacy Museum in particular incorporated Sport Heritage; (b) understanding how this discourse was created; and (c) make in situ observations to identify visitors’ reactions at different museums displays. Besides the presentation of the highlights of this experience, this essay discusses an alternative to increase the level of activism of the museum’s visitors, especially young visitors, toward racial inequality in the current century.

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(Photo of the Legacy Museum’s façade)

Legacy Museum Overview

Opened to the public in April 2018, “The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration” is a project of “The Equal Justice Initiative,” a private nonprofit organization founded in 1989 by Bryan Stevenson, to advocate against racial and economic injustices experienced by marginalized people, in particular African Americans. As part of the project to change the narrative about race in America, the museum was intentionally built on a former warehouse where enslaved black people were imprisoned, and between a historic slave market and the main river dock and train station which was a point of entrance for a large number of enslaved people.

According to the museum’s official website, its creation was influenced by international initiatives that organized similar projects to tackle, expose, and debate tragical moments of the human history such as the genocide in Rwanda, the Apartheid in South Africa, and the Jewish persecution by the Nazi regime in Europe. The museum’s initial displays demonstrate a Transformative Paradigm which combine traditional exhibitions with new technology to help understand the conditions of enslaved people, as well as contend with the histories of slavery, lynching, and segregation which has its roots in the 17th century.

For Creswell (2014), this paradigm was adopted in the 1980s by researchers who did not agree with a post-positivist framework that did not recognize marginalized individuals or social issues that should be addressed. As such, the Transformative Paradigm also differentiates from a constructivist stance for clearly assuming a political standpoint and inviting an action agenda to support those minorities against “different oppressions based on gender, race, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic class that results in asymmetric power relationships” (p.88).

Indeed, the first impressions regarding this paradigm were later confirmed through different statements made by people who are directly or indirectly involved with the museum in a video posted at the museum’s website.  Located in a state still famous for racist incidents (e.g., the public celebration of Dr. Sims, “the father of gynecology,” honored with statues at the Alabama State Capitol, even after conducting hundreds of brutal medical experiments on enslaved black women), the museum was created to “be a place where the truth can be told” (Jonathan Kubakundimana); to “expose the narratives that allowed us, as a country, to tolerate suffering and injustice among people of color” (Sia Sanneh); and to incentive people to “come through our museum and walk out with an opportunity to do something” (Bryan Stevenson).

The museum purposely provokes an emotional response from visitors. Chronologically, its displays explain how slavery was justified by false notions of black inferiority and supported by legal, political, religious and scientific institutions, as well as emphasize details about the practice of lynching, the domestic slave trade, mass, and other relevant topics.

Visitors face shocking historical facts such as the murder of 4.000 African Americans between 1880 and 1940 in lynching events based on the necessary effort “to protect white southerners from black criminals”, or the separation of nearly half of all black families in the USA as a consequence of the domestic slave trade (1808-1865). Throughout the museum, it is also possible to read newspapers announcements and second-hand testimonies regarding the impacts on the lives of African Americans before, during and after the official period of slavery in America:

“I saw a mother lead seven children to the auction block. She knew that some of them would be taken from her; but they took all. (…) She wrung her hands in anguish, and exclaimed, ‘Gone! All gone! Why don’t God kill me?” (Second-hand testimony displayed in the first stage of the museum next to the entrance)

“Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” George Wallace – Governor of Alabama, 1963

(Quote presented in the third stage of the museum which highlights the historic process of segregation).

John Hart field will be lynched by Ellisville mob at 5 o’clock this afternoon- 1919, June 26. “It is expected that he will be burned.”  (Newspaper announcement displayed in the fourth stage of the museum which highlights episodes of lynching).

In summary, visitors will have an impactful experience within the Legacy Museum when confronted with the reality of racism in America, both in the past and today.

Sport Heritage at the Legacy Museum

As Ramshaw and Gammon (2016) argue, the sporting past is not only about celebrating and nostalgic moments, but can also illuminate harmful and negative legacies from sport’s past. The authors suggest two approaches: the ‘heritage of sport’ which examines sport heritage that is self-contained (records and athletic achievements, for example) A second approach (and more useful to this essay) looked at “sport as heritage”, that is to say, “when its practices, its rituals, and its history transcend sport and become representative of a people” (Ramshaw & Gammon, 2016, p.117).

Regarding the latter conceptualization, the achievement of Jackie Robinson in 1947 as the first Major League baseball player to break the color barrier since 1880, which provided an encouraging influence in the “upcoming Civil Rights Movement by giving Americans a heroic African-American sports figure to rally around” (McBirney, 2017) is often remembered. Although the Legacy Museum does not account for the impact of Jackie Robinson in the historical segregation process in America, Muhammad Ali was pictured among others social activists.

 

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(Photo of Muhammad Ali amongst other social activists)

Here, it is noteworthy to emphasize that Ali’s resistance to racial inequality was not addressed separately, i.e., with particular attention to his achievements out of the boxing ring but through a quote of Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955) who stated:

If we have the courage and tenacity of our forebears, who stood firmly like a rock against the lash of slavery, we shall find a way to do for our day what they did for theirs.

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(Texts from laws during the Jim Crow era)

Another stage of the museum displayed transcripts of the Jim Crow laws’ period (1876-1965), where racial segregation was mandatory in public facilities in the states that were part of the former Confederate States of America. Six, in particular, were connected to Sport Heritage and exemplified the constraints concerning leisure experiences that black people were forced to deal for almost a century.

The first display illustrated paragraph 66-1005 of the “1942 Code of the City of Atlanta (Georgia)”, which state:

It shall be unlawful for any amateur white baseball team to play baseball in any vacant lot or baseball diamond within two blocks of a playground devoted to the negro race, and it shall be unlawful for any amateur colored baseball team to play … within two blocks of a play grounded devoted to the white race.

The article 614-11 of the Texas Penal Code of 1947 was also displayed demanding segregation rules into the boxing and wrestling practices:

“No individual, firm, club, copartnership, association, company or corporation shall …. Knowingly permit any fistic combat match, boxing, sparring or wrestling contest or exhibition between any person of the Caucasian or “White” race and one of the African or “Negro” race.

By its turn, one excerpt of the Oklahoma state laws (Chapter 70, paragraph 13246 of 1935; and Title 82, paragraph 489 of 1949) regarding the fishing, boating and, bathing exercises was transcript too:

“The [Conservation] Commission shall have the right to make segregation of the white and colored races as to the exercise of rights of fishing, boating and bathing.”

Additionally, the Alabama State code (Chapters 20, paragraph 28; and 34, paragraph 5) of 1952 was portrayed to illustrate other restrictions suffered by black people either on games or public spaces, respectively:

“It shall be unlawful for a negro and a white person to play together or in company with each other in the city in any game of cards, dice, dominoes or checkers.”

“It shall be unlawful for any owner, operator or person in charge of any room, hall, theater, picture house, auditorium, yard, court, ball park or other indoor or outdoor place to which both white persons and negroes are admitted, in the city, to cause, permit, or allow therein or thereon any theatrical performance, picture exhibition, speech, educational or entertainment program or athletic contest of any king whatsoever, unless such place has entrances, exits and seating or standing sections set aside for and assigned to the use of negroes, by well defined physical barriers, and unless the members of each race are effectively restricted and confined to the sections set aside for and assigned to the use of such race”.

Finally, The Code of the South Carolina State (1962) was found pictured in the museum, however in connection to restriction on Public Parks, Pools and, Beaches:

“In all counties containing a city of a population in excess of 60,000, according to the 1930 census, it shall be unlawful to maintain public parks, public recreation centers, public amusement centers, and public bathing beaches for the joint use and enjoyment of both the white and colored races.

….

It shall be unlawful for any person of the white race to enter, use or attempt to use any such place which is duly posted to be dedicated and maintained for the use of the colored race; and it shall be unlawful for any person of the colored race to enter, use or attempt to use any such place which is duly posted to be dedicated and maintained for the use of the white race”.

Despite those impactful displays that correlated with the sporting past, it seems that the museum could obtain even more resonance if explored contemporary issues of the American sports universe. This opinion is discussed in more details in the following topic.

Kaepernick and Racial Inequality: An Opportunity Missed?

In the last stage of the museum, visitors come across a large wall displaying pictures that invite critical reflections toward polemical themes that have been affecting the lives of African Americans. Below each photograph, there is a question purposely designed to install in visitors a sense of injustice. (e.g., “Why memorials and monuments are still honoring soldiers of the Confederacy Army in many southern states?”; “Do churches and people of faith have a special obligation to address the history of racial inequality?”).

This “Critical Wall” also address distinctive topics such as the problem of sentencing children to die in prison, rehabilitation of incarcerated people, racial segregation in schools, the death penalty, racial injustice and the church, school to prison pipeline, and police shootings of unarmed people.

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(Photo of the “Critical Wall”)

However, even though the historic tradition of players activists in America (e.g. Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith, and John Carlos) who have used sports as a platform to reach a bigger audience and promote social awareness about racial inequality, the “Legacy Museum” revealed a complete absence on addressing past and contemporary racial issues through activist players’ lenses.

As the literature already demonstrated sport is a vehicle for progressive social change (Kaufman and Wolff, 2010) and, a representation of, the increasing cultural importance to debate the relevance of human rights (Giulianotti, 2005). In this decade America has experienced a remarkable case within the football universe that produced significative discussions and criticism between owners, players, media, and fans in general about the role of the government policies to achieve an egalitarian country.

“I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world.”

Whether you may think that this phrase is attributed to Colin Kaepernick, you are wrong. In fact, this is a quote made by the former star baseball player, Jackie Robinson, in his autobiography in 1972 “I Never Had It Made.” Indeed, there is no doubt that it could be easily linked to the former quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, who started in 2016 a series of peaceful protests against social injustices and policy brutality by kneeling during the National Anthem before NFL games. Contrary to the legendary number 42, who has been celebrated by professional sports organizations as does Muhammed Ali, Kaepernick who is still considered a free agent after no team offered him a contract since 2017 is only accumulating awards for his awareness and encouragement for the matters of minorities outside the sports community.

In 2017, Kaepernick was the recipient of the “2017 Sports Illustrated Muhammad Ali Legacy Award”, an honor attributed to a person who uses sports as a stage for changing the world. In the occasion, through the words of Lonnie Ali, Muhammad’s widow, it becomes clear how many similarities both shared in defense of black people interests:

“Like Muhammad, Colin is a man who stands on his convictions with confidence and courage, undaunted by the personal sacrifices he has had to make to have his message heard. And he has used his celebrity and philanthropy to the benefit of some of our most vulnerable community members.”(Rosenberg, 2017).

In addition, after receiving Harvard’s highest honor in the field of African and African American studies, the “W.E.B. Du Bois Medal” (Nathan, 2018), Kaepernick joined Muhammad Ali (2015) as the only other athlete to be presented with this award. Kaepernick acknowledged the importance to continue raising debates and initiatives to change the status quo:

“I feel it’s not only my responsibility but all of our responsibilities that – as people who are in positions of privilege, in positions of power – we continue to fight for them, uplift them, empower them.”(BBC, 2018).

As demonstrated throughout recent America’s history, influential players have become a voice for black communities in an attempt to promote better living conditions, and in parallel ended up representing the roots of the Transformative framework, markedly impacted by political and social action. Even though still neglected by the museum, the connections with Colin Kaepernick’s social justice advocacy are evident if we take into consideration that the museum displays the central symbol of the NFL player protests: The United States flag. In the museum entrance, “The Star-Spangled Banner” is critically adapted with the museum’s motto: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration.

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(American flag augmented to include the museum’s motto)

Another factor that would justify the inclusion of players activist prominence in discussions promoted by the museum touches on the original purpose of the museum’s creation. As posited in the official website, the museum was built to serve as a reconciling and educational vehicle to tackle racial inequality in contemporary problems. In this regard, considering that the observations made in situ revealed a significative number of youngers visiting the museum, not adding current sporting heritage discussions through their displays reveals a missed opportunity to influence activism on a public that is remarkably connected to sports, most specifically, with particular athletes.

As pointed out by Smoll (2015), a sports psychologist at the University of Washington, athletes are role models that can positively influence the next generation. In other words, the players’ lifestyle is a significant influential factor in children’s values, character, and behavior. Then, in a country where the education system is structured aligned with sports programs at the high school and college levels, offering a critical view through players’ lenses constitutes a golden opportunity to enhance social awareness.

Reinforcing this suggestion are the numbers provided by the National Center for Education Statistics showing that in fall 2018, about 56.6 million students attended elementary and secondary schools, and 19.9 million were enrolled in colleges and universities. On the other hand, the identification of roughly 8 million high-school student-athletes in the U.S. by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), is another solid representation about the need of using the history of players activists in the Legacy Museum.

The museum experience could also help student-athletes realizes the social, economic and political influences that they are exposed in their institutional sports programs, therefore encouraging them not to hide their personal beliefs and fostering a critical thinking behavior about the challenges of modern life. Last but not least, by opening this contemporary sporting channel of discussions, museums’ organizers could also establish a parallel with the alleged collusion plan orchestrated by NFL owners that structured a type of “death penalty” on Kaepernick’s dream to play professional football to explain harder issues of racial segregation that have been happening in the past with black people on a range of other social environments.

Conclusion

Although the “Legacy Museum” is a site where visitors are exposed to sorrowful episodes of America’s history that even can lead to disbelief on humankind, simultaneously, it was revealed to be a critical space that either instigate or reinforce active engagement concerning racial issues.  Throughout this essay, it was possible to demonstrate the existence of sport heritage displays inside the museum, however under a structure which restrains the potential influential contributions that sports are capable of addressing for this kind of exhibitions.

In a country which needs to promote social consciousness regarding the history of African Americans, especially to the next generations that will ended up substituting the current one who inevitably still have racist influences on their behavior, the connection with Sport Heritage through the examples of remarkable players activists like Colin Kaepernick, ought to be considered by the museum organizers. Such important addition to the “Critical Wall” would certainly increase the probability of visitors leaving Montgomery not only as “students” or “student-athletes” but as social activists for a most egalitarian American society.

FELIPE BERTAZZO TOBAR is a doctoral student and graduate teaching assistant in the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management department at Clemson University.  His interests lie in critical studies of heritage, with a particular interest in sport heritage. He received his bachelor’s degree in Law (2014) and obtained a Master’s degree in Cultural Heritage and Society (2017) from the Univille University, in the city of Joinville, Brazil. He can be reached on Twitter at @felipebtobar

Works cited

BBC Sport. (2018). Colin Kaepernick: NFL quarterback calls for further protests against racial injustice. Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.com/sport/american-football/45833787

Creswell, J. W., & Creswell, J. D. (2017). Research design: Qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches. Sage publications.

Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). (n.d.). About EJI. Retrieved from https://museumandmemorial.eji.org/about

EJI’s New Legacy Museum. (2017) Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=101&v=SMvPXAowNgk

Giulianotti, R. (2005). Sport: A critical sociology. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Kaufman, P., & Wolff, E. A. (2010). Playing and protesting: Sport as a vehicle for social change. Journal of Sport and Social Issues34(2), 154-175.

McBirney, J. (2017). How Jackie Robinson Changed Baseball. Retrieved from: https://www.commonlit.org/texts/how-jackie-robinson-changed-baseball

Nathan, A. (2018). Colin Kaepernick Receives W.E.B. Du Bois Medal from Harvard. Retrieved from: https://bleacherreport.com/articles/2800384-colin-kaepernick-receives-web-du-bois-medal-from-harvard

National Center for Education Statistics. (2018). Fast Facts. Retrieved from: https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=372

NCAA. (n.d.) Probability of Competing Beyond High School. Retrieved from: http://www.ncaa.org/student-athletes

Robinson, J., Duckett, A., & Davis, O. (1972). I never had it made. New York: Putnam.

Rosenberg, M. (2017). Colin Kaepernick is Recipient of 2017 Awards Illustrated Muhammad Ali Legacy Award. Retrieved from:https://www.si.com/sportsperson/2017/11/30/colin-kaepernick-muhammad-ali-legacy-award

Smoll, F. (2015) Are Athletes Good Role Models? Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/coaching-and-parenting-young-athletes/201504/are-athletes-good-role-models


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