History | Soccer fields, for King and Atlanta, lent space to move ‘beyond Vietnam’

His work in ministry, as a public speaker and as face of the American civil rights movement prevented him from developing strong sporting enthusiasms, but at least once in his career Martin Luther King Jr. stepped onto a soccer field.

In the aftermath of birthday commemorations and the U.S. federal holiday on Jan 21, we learned that King had delivered one of his strongest moral condemnations of the Vietnam War, on 16 Oct 1967, from the soccer pitch at Sacramento State. More than 7,000 packed the stands and spilled onto the turf.

On the 40th anniversary of King’s visit, a KCRA-TV report shows very brief glimpses of King’s Oct 1967 address as well as the venue, now the Alex G. Spanos Sports Complex. See American Rhetoric’s online speech bank for a transcript and audio of King’s first delivery of “Beyond Vietnam—A Time to Break the Silence,” Riverside Church, New York, 4 Apr 1967.

King typically met receptive audiences in university settings, although editorialists and mainstream elements in society questioned the anti-war turn as well as the challenging rhetoric. King told David Halberstam at the time that he believed in “a reconstruction of the entire society, a revolution of values,” to include nationalization of certain industries and guaranteed incomes. Several weeks after the Sacramento speech, King would announce the Poor People’s Campaign as a nonviolent alternative to urban rioting (see Joseph Palermo, “Dr. King at Sacramento State College, October 16, 1967,” The Huffington Post, 16 Oct 07).

Meanwhile, change was occurring behind the scenes in King’s hometown, Atlanta, with the city’s recently established baseball team, the Braves, and its multicultural soccer team, the Chiefs, playing important roles.

In considering soccer’s place in the American civil rights movement, Atlanta may be the best place to start. The Chiefs formed part of the onrush of major-league sports to the capital of the New South. In rapid succession, Atlanta acquired the Braves from Milwaukee (1966); the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons (1966); the Chiefs as a start-up team—owned by the Braves—in the renegade National Professional Soccer League (1967); and the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks (1968).

Braves vice-president and business manager Dick Cecil became the “point man” for the Braves and Chiefs in race relations, according to a former associate. Minor-league facilities in Georgia and the Braves’ front office quietly were integrated. Both teams committed themselves to community outreach to help smooth hard feelings over construction of Atlanta–Fulton County Stadium, built on speculation before the city had commitments from major-league franchises. The stadium—demolished in 1997—had displaced low-income, primarily black home owners as part of Mayor Ivan Allen‘s plan to create a “buffer zone” for downtown. In an interview with the Atlanta Constitution in 1985, Cecil recalls:

At the time there was a great deal of feeling toward the stadium. [We] started the “Good Neighbor Program” and spent a lot of time in the neighborhoods. It was the height of the civil rights movement. Feelings were high. I got middle-of-the-night phone calls, people threatening to burn crosses in my yard, calling me names. … I was persona non grata at one local bank. … My three kids took some abuse.

Six years earlier, during spring training in Bradenton, Florida, hotel owners begrudgingly agreed to provide rooms for the Milwaukee Braves’ Hank Aaron and other black players, but only after they agreed to eat meals behind a dining-room partition. Aaron would receive death threats in 1973 when closing in on Babe Ruth‘s home-run record; before hitting his 714th in Cincinnati, tying the record, Reds officials denied Aaron’s request for a moment of silence to commemorate the sixth anniversary of King’s assassination.

Kaizer “Boy-Boy” Motaung

Integrated sport certainly represented new ground for one of the Chiefs’ early signings, Kaizer “Boy-Boy” Motaung, who in South Africa’s segregated leagues had never played with whites before, never showered or dressed with them. He led the Chiefs in goals in 1968 and helped guide the club to the North American Soccer League title, Atlanta’s first professional sports championship. No Atlanta team would claim a championship until the Thunder of World Team Tennis in 1991–92, followed by the Braves in 1995.

With a missionary vision to spread soccer in a nearly soccer-void landscape, the 1968 Chiefs—almost 40 years before English sides such as Arsenal would trigger domestic horror by fielding exclusively foreign-born squads—created a similarly multi-hued mix with not one American. Ten players arrived from the UK, with eight other nations represented. In addition to Motaung, three players came from Africa: Freddie Mwila and Emment Kapengwe from Zambia and Willie Evans from Ghana. From their outreach and the impetus of player-coach Phil Woosnam, they helped develop suburban soccer, transforming a game of ethnic enclaves.

As city and nation looked for models of racial coexistence, the Chiefs offered an exemplar. “That team epitomized to me what soccer is all about,” Welsh defender Brian Hughes said in 1993, referring to the blend of cultures and playing styles. “We were the perfect mix.”

To Atlanta and the state of Georgia, the Chiefs provided, according to the Braves’ Cecil, a “great, great vehicle for internationalism” that the pan-humanist appeal of the civil rights movement also helped develop (see our entry, “Soccer,” New Georgia Encyclopedia, 2 Nov 07, for more on the international influences in Georgia soccer).

Motaung and two other South Africans, the late Pule “Ace” Ntsoelengoe and Jomo Sono, would continue to develop their skills, as long as apartheid prevented top-level competition at home, both in the NASL and on township teams in the NASL off-season. Sono and Motaung paid homage to the league’s place in elevating their statures by naming new South African teams in the NASL’s honor. Sono formed Jomo Cosmos and Motaung the Kaizer Chiefs.

At a 2004 awards dinner and in a recent interview on the Kaizer Chiefs website, Motaung, who is still chairman and chief executive of the team he formed in 1970, credits the Atlanta experience for granting exposure to international soccer that he would not have gained otherwise. The formation of Kaizer Chiefs also afforded stature and boosted confidence for Soweto residents in their struggles against forced segregation (“The Birth of Kaizer Chiefs through the Eyes of Kaizer Motaung,” n.d.):

Kaizer Chiefs was formed, I guess, at the right time. We were living through a politically repressive and violent era. For instance, if you defeated Pirates at Orlando Stadium, chances were that it would be difficult to leave the stadium unharmed. Then along came Chiefs. Our dress code was such that it appealed to a lot of people. … [W]e promoted the concept of love and peace, and incorporated it into our slogan. We emphasised through words and deeds, both on and off the field, that soccer was about comradeship, about friendship, sportsmanship.

In fashion, the Chiefs favored Afros and bell-bottoms and backed up the unconventional style on the pitch, becoming the first black side in South Africa to defeat a team from the white leagues. Now, within South Africa, they have a Manchester United–like branding force, lending their name to mobile phones, credit cards and insurance.

In a tribute to Ntsoelengoe following his death in 2006 (“Hamba Kahle, Ace Ntsoelengoe,” 9 May 06), Tony Karon alludes to the quiet forms of activism that Motaung, Ntsoelengoe and others demonstrated in their football. Referring to Ntsoelengoe, Karon writes that “by his very existence as an icon of a new form of urban African existence,”

he was innately subversive to the apartheid order. If the apartheid idea was that black people would not have any presence or identity in the city except to work for white people, then the emergence of Ace and his contemporaries as the first generation of urban black celebrities in South Africa (recognizable across social boundaries), using their skills and talents to enrich themselves or (more likely) black club owners was a negation of the very basis of apartheid’s version of black identity as a rural, tribal phenomenon.

Ace and his contemporaries were hip and styling, and their game spoke of an attitude of freedom, creativity and power. Whether intending to or not, they were social role models for thousands of city-born black kids who took their destiny into their own hands starting with the 1976 uprising.

The line is not a straight one between King’s speech on a Sacramento soccer field in Oct 1967, the Atlanta Chiefs and their championship, and the rise of such South African freedom styling. But, as jazz composer Wynton Marsalis once said, everything is connected.


Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954–63 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988), 399; Doug Cress, “When the Chiefs Ruled Atlanta,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 30 July 1993, D1, D10; David Halberstam, “The Second Coming of Martin Luther King,” Harper’s, August 1967, reprinted in Reporting Civil Rights, pt. 2: American Journalism, 1963–1973 (New York: Library of America, 2003), 563–88; Thomas Oliver, “Life Will Always Be Like a Game to Dick Cecil,” Atlanta Constitution, 10 June 1985, 1C, 6C; Gary M. Pomerantz, Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn: A Saga of Race and Family (New York: Penguin, 1996), 426–27; Clarence N. Stone, Regime Politics: Governing Atlanta, 1946–1988 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1989), 60–63; David Wangerin, Soccer in a Football World: The Story of America’s Forgotten Game (London: When Saturday Comes, 2006), 121–50; Jack Wilkinson, “Is It Boom Time for U.S. Soccer?” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 27 May 1990.

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

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  1. [...] Finally, I have to drop a nod to this gem I missed and which hits close to home. The Atlanta Chiefs playing a role along with my Atlanta Braves in breaking down the walls of segregation. Global games indeed. [...]

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