This past Monday night was a very special one as both a Raider fan and a Black history buff. My hometown Oakland Raiders went down to Mexico City to play a Monday Night Football contest and defeated the Houston Texans. This was special on several levels. For one, it was a unique experience to see an Oakland Raider game played in Mexico. Many of the most die hard Raider fans in the Bay Area and L.A are of Spanish descent, including many close friends, and some of them even made it to the game. I could tell from the social media posts they were sharing that to be able to explore the country of their ancestors while also enjoying their hometown team play (and win) a football game is an experience that touched them deeply. It was also special validation of the Raiders to win a big international game on Monday Night Football. During the Raiders decades of dominance in the 1970’s and ’80s they were especially known for their excellence when the lights shone the brightest, on prime time Monday night games. Those Monday night games exposed the nation to the pirates, bikers, soul brothers, renegade drinkers, central casting running backs (Marcus Allen and Bo Jackson), and reckless hitters who together created the Raider mystique. Winning on an internationally televised stage legitimatizes what we’ve known in the Bay Area all year, The Raiders truly can play! But Raiders owner Mark Davis did something else that made a very powerful statement.
Colin Kapernick, starting QB for the 49ers has drawn both haters and lovers for his National Anthem protests this football season, with some even dubiously claiming they are behind the NFL’s current ratings drop. Those protests have evolved from simply remaining seated to taking a dignified knee, and he’s been joined in them by members of his own team, as well as players on other teams and in other sports. The motivation behind them has been the nearly unceasing stream of officer involved, racially motivated shootings by police officers against Black men and women during the past few years, which leads back to the legacy of Jim Crow and America’s history of racial repression. With Kap’s proud Afro and Ethiopianesque visage, both his image and his stance remind one of the Black sports heroes of the 1960s in particular, people like Jim Brown, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Muhammed Ali, and many other athletes of that time. He has been counseled in his sports activism by a Soul Survivor veteran of the Civil Rights and Black Power days, Dr. Harry Edwards, who organized a legendary boycott by black athletes of the 1968 Mexico City Olympic games.
Those games are legendary for the manner in which they highlighted the racial tensions of the time. Dr. King was killed in April, and America endured it’s largest scale racial rioting in its history. The phrase “Black Power”, unleashed by Stokely Carmichael right next to Dr. King in 1966 had resounded with a powerful echo in the worldwide Black community, and James Brown had already released his anthemic “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m proud.” The Black Panthers had been around for two years and were fixtures on the nightly news, and every force in Black life, from the right, left, and center were being galvanized on where they stood on the new wave of Malcom X, Marcus Garvey, Third World Liberation Black militant thought that had finally come to the forefront.
It was in this environment that Dr. Harry Edwards called for a boycott by Black Athletes of the ’68 Olympic Games in Mexico City. Muhammed Ali had already provided the greatest example of a star Athlete resisting racial and governmental tyranny by refusing his induction to the draft in 1967. By the late ’60s professional sports had emerged as possibly the largest positive reflection of Black people in the United States and increasingly the world, with the way paved by stars such as Bill Russell, Jim Brown, Don Barksdale, Woody Strode, the great Jackie Robinson, Althea Gibson, Bob Gibson, Willie Mays, Joe Louis, Muhammed Ali, and many others. Many of these stars were very explicitly socially and politically active, but even those who were not were very useful to demonstrate the fact that Black people had the ability to do great things in modern society. Back when Jesse Owens owned the 1936 Olympics, it was suggested by Adolf Hitler and his Nazi propagandists that “Blacks lacked the intelligence to run”, which is an absurd claim considering people of African descent are known for our athletic prowess today. But it represents the totalitarian thinking on race that gripped the 20th century and would exist today if not for the obvious exploits of so many great Black people.
What made a larger impression on history was not the boycott, but two Bay Area sprinters who actually competed in the games, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the Gold and Bronze winners of the 200 meter race. Their black glove raised protest, feet shorn in black socks standing on the podium in victory, provided possibly the greatest visual of the Black Power era, an image that matched Brown and Mayfield and Franklin’s music and Malcom X’s speeches. This action, though celebrated now, resulted in death threats and ostracism from the Olympic and Track and Field establishments.
History has been very kind however to the legacies of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, and Raider owner Mark Davis added to that on Monday Night. He invited Dr. Tommie Smith to fly with the team to Mexico City to light the torch that a Raider great lights before every home game in honor of his father, Al Davis. This was significant on several levels because Tommie Smith (who had a very brief NFL career) never played for the Raiders but is like the Raiders, a Bay Area legend who is a symbol for standing for what you believe in. The man who’s torch he lit that night, Al Davis, was perhaps the supreme maverick of NFL history, a man who drafted a Black Quarterback in the first round and hired one of his former players, Art Shell, to be the first Black NFL Head Coach in 1989. Davis was also known to be one of the first men in professional football (along with Bill Nunn Sr. of the Pittsburg Steelers) to regularly scout the HBCU’s, where he found Hall of Famers like Gene Upshaw and Art Shell.
The symbolism and the reality of this action shocked me for several reasons. While I know Al Davis and the Raiders have always been a very progressive team socially and culturally, they are also a very “blue collar” team. In fact, Im pretty sure that the small numbers of people who voted for Donald Trump in the Bay Area had many Raider fans among them. But the Raiders also represent a powerful coming together of Black, White, and Mexican working class people in the East Bay Area of California, other places like Los Angeles and the rest of the country. The Raiders have strong Mexican associations such as their legendary theme song, and the original name of the team was slated to be “The Senors” before a little girl suggested the name “Raiders.” They wear Black, just as Smith and Carlos did in Mexico City in 1868, and just as that other great Oakland institution, The Black Panthers, and another one, The Hell’s Angels. And they also always had the renegade vibe of the Hells Angels with players such as Ken Stabler, John Mutusack, Ted Hendricks and many other Raider greats.
The Raiders did this in a Bay Area sports world that has always been as progressive and nonconformist as the Bay Area as a whole. The Bay Area has had wild sports visionaries like Oakland A’s owner Charlie Finley, who clad his team in the perfect “Have a Nice Day” 1970s uniform of Green and Gold while winning three straight World Series. It also had my favorite coach, the visionary Bill Walsh of the San Francisco 49ers, who elevated offensive football to a science and also instituted a minority coach apprenticeship program in the NFL that led to Black NFL Head Coaches like Dennis Green, Marvin Lewis and Ray Rhodes. Walsh did this while employing and being advised by the organizer of that ’68 Olympic boycott, Dr. Harry Edwards, who also advises Colin Kaepernick almost 50 years later in 2016.
In the end, Tommie Smith’s Al Davis torch lighting was an incredible moment for the NFL, The Raiders, Black athletes and the legacy of Bay Area sports. When Colin Kaepernick began his protests, I had the feeling no Oakland Raiders would be able to participate as freely in the protests. In fact, two players did raise a fist before a game and caused some friction among the team. Mark Davis has stated that he did not mind his players protesting but did not want them to do so, while in uniform, which he felt would tarnish the Raider brand. However he had met Tommie Smith through his father when he was in college and had a great appreciation for what those men did on that day. The Raider fan base is unique, probably containing both Donald Trump supporters with Black militants and Obama supporters, and some of those same Mexican Americans and native Mexicans Trump wants to build a wall to exclude. What unites them is an independent, hard working, that provides an example of how united America will be once the old divisions can no longer be used to run games, which is what the best of sports does as a whole. While I don’t want Dr. Tommie Smith’s torch lighting to be used to suggest all Black struggle is a thing of the past and not relevant when modern day athletes express their desire to see social change happen today, I applaud it as the most “Raider” thing I’ve seen in too long of a time!