By Mohsin Mirza, Voting Rights Program Coordinator
In the middle of Muhammad Ali’s refusal to fight in the Vietnam War, American television host David Susskind had this to say about the boxer:
“I find nothing amusing or interesting or tolerable about this man. He’s a disgrace to his country, his race, and what he laughingly describes as his profession . . . He is a simplistic fool and a pawn.”
Far from atypical, Susskind’s views represented the way in which a majority of Americans saw Ali at the time: ungrateful and unpatriotic. It’s easy to forget now given how we celebrate Ali and his legacy, but in his prime years, he was the most reviled athlete in America.
We cannot ignore the ways in which that history echoes in today’s moment. We see these echoes in the tragic killings of Emmett Till, Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, in the racialized “law and order” rhetoric of President Nixon then, and in President Trump now. We also see it in the courageous actions of young people building movements that confront this legacy. As today’s Movement for Black Lives reminds us that while years have passed, racial injustice remains.
Just as Ali was reviled for “not knowing his place,” Colin Kaepernick finds himself the target of the same vitriol and many of the same derogatory adjectives for his protest during the National Anthem. Kaepernick’s action was a silent protest, not an antagonistic or hostile gesture. As the Star Spangled Banner played, a Black athlete knelt. In that moment, the contrast between America’s ideals of freedom and the violent reality of racial injustice became impossible to ignore.
Some may see the firestorm of controversy as evidence that Kaepernick’s stand was misguided. This view is profoundly ahistorical. Being controversial is the essence of protest itself. When we take these actions, we force society to address the problems it has been ignoring, and in doing so we begin laying the groundwork for change.
We saw this in the reaction to Kaepernick’s actions. Soon, dozens of athletes, from the NFL to high school football to US Soccer, were raising Black Power fists and kneeling during the anthem, all to bring attention to this cause. For weeks after his stand, Kaepernick brought this conversation to traditionally apolitical outlets like Sportscenter. Athletes and commentators alike had to acknowledge, even if they disagreed with Kaepernick’s protest, that America could not continue to ignore the pervasive institutional racism in our society.
All this time, Kaepernick has taken his actions a step further by giving his personal time to and raising $1 million for organizations doing social justice work. He has hosted “Know Your Rights” workshops focused on empowering minority youth. In combining the tools of activism, philanthropy, and community work, Colin Kaepernick reminded us this year that our positions and professions in society, whether we are athletes, lawyers, or activists, does not excuse us from this responsibility to stand for something.
Few have exemplified this attitude of action and solidarity like Yuri Kochiyama. Every year at our annual dinner we honor an individual or group that has made a deep impact in their community in her name. The legendary Japanese American activist is equally remembered today for winning reparations for Japanese Americans sent to internment camps as she is for her civil disobedience for Puerto Rican independence, solidarity work with African American political prisoners, and her participation in Malcolm X’s Organization of Afro American Unity.
Her legacy is emblematic of the work we here at Advancing Justice - Asian Law Caucus has strived to do for the past 45 years: fighting for the legal and civil rights of Asian American communities while working in solidarity with communities of color impacted by the same systems of racism and xenophobia.
It has now been decades since Yuri Kochiyama was building movements or Muhammad Ali was fighting in the ring and much has shifted in our politics since then. America’s views about the Vietnam War have changed, the Civil Rights Movement is now honored, and Muhammad Ali has been vindicated by time.
Here at Advancing Justice - Asian Law Caucus, we do not need to wait for history’s judgment on police brutality, or on mass incarceration, deportations, Islamophobia, evictions, workers rights abuses, and voter suppression. We see the damage of those systems in serving our clients every day. As we work to carry on legacy of Yuri Kochiyama, Muhammad Ali, and so many others in our work, we honor those who carry that fight alongside us. It is for this reason that we are honoring Colin Kaepernick and his courage with this year’s Yuri Kochiyama Impact Award.
Please join us in celebrating Colin Kaepernick and 45 Years of Justice at our anniversary dinner on April 28th, or follow along on social media at #ALC45.