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

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.

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  1. This Is American Soccer, US Soccer, MNT, WNT, and MLS » Blog Archive » the barometer:

    [...] 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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