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.

YouTube video

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.

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