Behind the scenes of ‘Black Lightning’ reveals the intersection of race, social justice and culture Jefferson Pierce just might be DC Comics’ most complex character yet, and here’s why

The CW’s newest comic-book-turned-TV-series Black Lightning is the first African-American DC superhero to have his own stand-alone comic title and premieres Jan. 16 — the day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

The series follows Jefferson Pierce (played by Cress Williams), a retired superhero who is forced to return as Black Lightning after nine years when the rise of the local gang, The One Hundred, threatens his family and leads to increased crime and corruption in the community. The gang leader is Tobias Whale, played by Los Angeles rapper Marvin “Krondon” Jones III.

Jones best describes his villainous character as a mix between the former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who put the city through a corruption scandal so vast that it accelerated Detroit into bankruptcy, and Detroit drug kingpin Big Meech, who made an estimated $270 million in sales before his 30-year prison sentence.

Unlike other superhero shows, Black Lightning isn’t battling two-headed monsters and aliens, but the realistic and metaphorical villains who exist in the modern world — gangs, gun violence, drugs, sex trafficking, corrupt politicians, racism and racial profiling.

Black Lightning reopens the dialogue about the best approach to the fight for justice — mirroring King’s stance of nonviolent protest versus Malcolm X’s defense of justice achieved “by any means necessary.”

On one hand, Jefferson is a community hero as the principal of a charter high school that was a safe haven from violence and gangbangers. In the comic book, he is one of the athletes who raised a fist during the 1968 Olympics during the national anthem. But on the other hand, as Black Lighting, he is the vigilante whom the community rallies behind after they’ve lost faith in an ineffective law enforcement and justice system.

The Undefeated visited the set of Black Lightning in Atlanta and spoke with executive producer Salim Akil and several members of the main cast to talk about the show’s deeper meaning and impact they hope to spark in viewers.


Tracey Bonner as LaWanda and Cress Williams as Jefferson Pierce

Richard Ducree/The CW

Why is it important to have a black superhero on TV fighting real-life issues happening in today’s world?

Cress Williams (Black Lightning/Jefferson Pierce): It’s definitely and desperately important to have everyone represented because superheroes are also role models [and we as a whole] need to learn more about different cultures and races. In order for this genre of superheroes to thrive, it has to diversify and evolve by exploring how it would be if we lived in a world where superheroes existed. How would they help with real-life problems and what challenges they face? It’s a way to see what’s really going on in the world and generate discussions around it.

Christine Adams (Lynn Stewart, Pierce’s ex-wife): These are stories that need to be told from the black perspective. But that doesn’t mean it’s only for the black audience; it’s for everyone, because the issues we address are coming straight out of today’s newspapers. Many times when we read stories on gun violence and gangs, we only see them as bad people. No one is just a bad person. People are complex, and it’s a series of events that leads them to the things they do. We easily look at people from a distance and make a judgment before really learning what shaped them to who they are today.

Damon Gupton (Inspector Henderson): It’s been time. We’re such an important fabric of popular culture that it only makes sense that we have a black superhero. As a child, I was a fan of Superman and X-Men, but if I had seen a superhero that looked like an uncle and was commenting on something that I had seen down the block from me, I’d feel like I’d have a voice and be empowered.

We see different approaches to fighting for change on the show. From Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and other approaches. What are the reasons behind your characters’ approaches?

Salim Akil (executive producer): It’s a debate that keeps going on inside of me, especially now that I have younger boys. I understand extreme violence, what a gunshot or a dead person on the street looks like, from my own life and friends’, so I know what violence is. It never leaves anyone … but in a certain way it leads to freedom. Nobody ever fought for freedom without adapting.

Williams: When Jefferson was younger, he flirted with the idea of just taking the Malcolm X way until his wife gave him the ultimatum after she couldn’t take another night of him putting his life on the line. So he went the Martin Luther King route for nine years as a school principal, not using his powers until he realized that although the school was thriving, everything around it wasn’t [and eventually the school would become affected too].

Yes, education, positivity and nonviolence need to be paramount, but sometimes you just gotta mess some things up, and Jefferson begins to realize that it takes both.

Nafessa Williams (Anissa Pierce): Anissa fights the Malcolm X fight all the way even before she has powers and becomes Thunder. Malcolm X is one of her heroes, which creates an ongoing back-and-forth with she and her dad [who wants to protect her from the dangers of taking that route]. [As Black Lighting inspires hope to the community], she sparks strength and boldness, knowing what your purpose is and literally walking in it every day.

Gupton: Henderson has the unfortunate position of being a law enforcer at a time when people are looking for results at seeing things get better. He’s telling the community that he’s trying, but they don’t believe him, so they call him names like ‘Uncle Tom’ or ‘Oreo.’ It puts him in a rock and a hard place because he truly believes he can make a difference in the community.

It’s got to mean something to him that the community has a sense of pride in Black Lightning as the guy who can fix their problems. Maybe a little bit of him wants that, or just a thank you, from time to time.

How will viewers relate to Lynn Stewart in not wanting her family to put themselves in danger?

Adams: It’s a push and pull for Lynn, which will be a very relatable concept for viewers. It’s hard when your children aspire to do good in the world, like serve in the military, but ultimately it is endangering their own lives. I’m sure for Lynn, she was hoping her loved ones would have gone about it as teachers or social activists but not superheroes.

How do you personally relate to these characters?

Akil: I’m definitely using a lot of my own life experiences. Jefferson and Tobias are both a part of me and the people I grew up with in Richmond [California]. My mom went to prison a few times and I was on my own for a bit, but one of the things she would always tell me is: ‘If I ever see you out here selling drugs, I will kill you.’

Young African-American men and women are self-motivated, so since my father wasn’t around and all of the men I knew were hustlers, I’d watch Johnny Carson and The Honeymooners and try to figure out what that world was. Then I turned to Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali. I happened to pick those guys, but some of my friends picked gangsters.

Marvin Krondon Jones III (Tobias Whale): Life prepares us for every role, no matter what the character is calling for. If you are in tune with yourself and life, the work is there. While preparing for this role, it slowly revealed itself to me that Tobias was in me or I was in Tobias, so I had to do a lot of soul-searching.

As a gold medalist of the 1968 Olympics, Jefferson Pierce appears to be living a very modest life. Why didn’t he capitalize on fame like other athletes?

Akil: I asked [Black Lightning comic book creator] Tony Isabella and he told me how [he made] Jefferson one of the athletes who bowed his head and raised a black-gloved fist during the national anthem at the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City, just as real-life African-American Olympic sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos did then. [If you remember what happened back then, many Americans were outraged from what Tommie and Carlos did. They received death threats and were suspended from the U.S. team, but neither apologized for it, nor ever felt the need to.] Like them, Jefferson got hit with that. We may explore that in the series later down the line.

Gun violence is a common theme in most comic-book-turned-TV-series. How is Black Lightning addressing this issue differently?

Akil: Young people are being shot, and people are going into churches, schools and movie theaters killing people. Gun violence in this country is real, and I didn’t want to make it feel good when viewers watched it on the show. I didn’t want shootings of just aliens or faceless folks but people that viewers would become familiar with and begin to care about. It’s one thing to read it [in the comic book], but it’s another to watch it because it affects you in a different way [for both the cast and viewers]. And that’s what I wanted.

Early in the series, Jefferson is pulled over by a white cop for essentially being a black man. Why was it important for you to have this scene in the series?

Akil: A lot of my black police officer friends get pulled over by the police. Before they can say that they are officers too, they have to be black first and hope that the person coming to the window is not affected with the disease of racism to the point that they pull the trigger before asking questions.

What’s your thought process in playing a black police officer in a time when law enforcement doesn’t have the best stigma?

Gupton: It’s the first time in my life where I had to think of what a black law enforcer has to be feeling and thinking when they are confronted with yet another scene of something atrocious that has happened. What is going on in their mind and heart knowing that they probably got into the force wanting to protect and serve the things that are now on fire, but still have to represent this beast. Are they protecting people who are corrupt, or are they corrupt themselves? Obviously, not my character, but what’s their psyche like as a black law enforcement officer at a time where law enforcement is intriguing, to say the least.

With a combination of music from Kendrick Lamar and your son [Yasin or Nasir], why is music such a strong component in Black Lightning?

Akil: You can’t separate us [black people] from music. It got us through slavery, Jim Crow laws, [racism and inequality]. Music has always been a part of who we are as people and as a culture and inherently gave America its most original music. People get upset when I say this, but we are the American dream. James Brown and Miles Davis aren’t black music. They’re so much bigger than that. It originated in America, so it’s American music. It’s about how you want to characterize it, and I characterize it as a gift to America. It’s the most American thing that we have, so we need to take ownership of that.

In the story of heroism, everyone doesn’t have superpowers but everyone plays a part. What is your advice to the average Jane and Joe who want to be part of the fight in making the world a better place?

China Anne McClain (daughter Jennifer Pierce): There’s always something that you in your own uniqueness can bring to the world. Find what that is and go for it. Don’t take no for an answer. Whatever is it that you want to tackle, do it because you can.

James Remar (Peter Gambi, Jefferson’s father figure, mentor and tailor): Stick by your truth and be guided by love. When we start to bend our personal truth and the truth out of mouths, that’s when we start to get into trouble.

Jones: Everyone has the power to fight for justice and change, whether you are a single parent, student, police officer or even the bad guy. What we’re seeing in the series is that everyone has a bit of superhero in them. It’s a choice.

Gupton: People can vote, volunteer, teach and connect. I consider those superpowers. My mom is a lawyer, and I see that as her superpower. Hopefully, we have the power to bring together the theme of family, community and togetherness to connect with this series.

Adams: Heroism doesn’t always get the thanks that it should. We have teachers who are working at schools with not a lot of funding and using their own [low] wages to buy supplies. And even the people who ran into strangers’ homes to help them get out during the recent California fires. These are the unsung heroes.

Meet the cast of the CW’s Black Lightning

America is comfortable with protesting athletes on their screens, but not in their stadiums In the movies and on TV, white players join in and no one demands athletes kneel on their own time

From Curt Flood to John Carlos and Tommie Smith to Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf to Colin Kaepernick, there’s a long tradition of black athletes standing up for themselves and the rights of others.

Such protests are highly controversial, both with authority figures in sports and with fans: Carlos and Smith were immediately banned from the Olympic Village, Abdul-Rauf’s NBA career came to an early end and President Donald Trump called players who kneel during the national anthem “sons of b—-es” and demanded they be fired. Some of those still-employed kneeling players met with NFL owners earlier this week to discuss a path forward.

Yet when America sees protesting athletes in movies and on TV, the dynamic is different from what happens in real life. Really, really different.

In the idealized settings of television and film, just as in real life, the protests come with great cost and risk. Still, when screen athletes stand up for their principles, not only do they win, they’re clearly identified as the “good guys.”

Audiences are comfortable with fictional athletes who stand up to corporate bullies, in part because movies and TV demand character development. Even when fictional players begin as compliant automatons, being told what to do and how to do it, their personal journeys are characterized by growth and self-awareness. There’s an expectation that once athletes discover their power and witness injustice, they will be compelled to act. After all, a bunch of guys looking at a problem and shrugging their shoulders doesn’t make for good drama.

But those expectations don’t translate well to real life, as polling data on NFL player protests has shown.

When fans and political critics demand that players “stick to sports,” they’re saying they want the excitement of games and terrific athletic ability, but they want it divorced from players’ full humanity. They want the action sequences, but no plot or character development. Which is how we get people saying athletes should protest “on their own time” — essentially, after the credits have run and no one’s watching.

In TV and film, once we’ve gotten to know characters as people who have the same emotional needs as we do, it becomes easier to digest the necessity of their protests. Their motivations drive our sympathy. We want them to win.

The racial dynamic is different on-screen as white characters are cast as protest leaders. And these works also communicate why the element of public spectacle is so important: It raises the stakes. Public or near-public showdowns are a key trope in these stories because they’re seen as necessary to achieving the desired results.

Here’s a look at some of the movies and television shows in which athletes stood up to the man(agement):

Survivor’s Remorse (2014-17)

Courtesy of Starz

The recently canceled Starz comedy starred Jessie T. Usher as Cam Calloway and Chris Bauer as Jimmy Flaherty, the owner of Cam’s professional basketball team in Atlanta. The two have a few standoffs, but the disagreement between Cam and Jimmy that carries special resonance these days comes after Flaherty signs a $5 million contract with a firm to put advertising patches on players’ jerseys. The problem is that the company is the second-largest funder of private prisons in the country. Cam, flanked by his lawyer and manager, tells Flaherty he won’t play as long as the patches are on the jerseys. Every great fortune may have a great crime behind it, but this is where he draws the line.

This standoff takes place in the arena, hours before tipoff, and Flaherty, who knows he can’t win without Cam, backs down. This confrontation takes place not in the first season but at the end of the fourth, after we’ve had plenty of episodes to witness how Cam’s activism has been inspired by the suffering he sees around him, and after we know that Cam’s commitment to criminal justice reform is motivated in part by his own father’s imprisonment. Not only that, we know that Cam is generous to a fault. His manager is constantly trying to talk him out of giving away more of his money. If Cam hadn’t taken a stand on the patches, it would seem unnatural given what we’ve learned about the content of his character.

Varsity Blues (1999)

The cast of Varsity Blues.

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I forgive you if the only thing you can remember about this movie is Ali Larter in a whipped-cream bra, but it really did have a bigger message.

James Van Der Beek starred as Jonathan Moxon, a backup quarterback for a Texas high school football team that has won two state titles under coach Bud Kilmer (Jon Voight). But Kilmer is merciless, racist and megalomaniacal — traits the school and community at large are happy to overlook so long as he keeps adding wins to West Canaan High’s record books.

Kilmer uses his star black running back, Wendell (Eliel Swinton), as little more than a mule, repeatedly deploying him for physically taxing runs but never allowing him to score a touchdown. The audience is treated to a bruising up-close-and-personal experience of those hits and the toll they exact on Wendell’s body. They’re gruesome.

Moxon is talented but not nearly as invested in football as his father or his coach are. And he hates Kilmer’s racism and mercenary disregard for the health of his players. Moxon gets tapped to lead the team because first-stringer and all-state quarterback Lance Harbor (Paul Walker) suffers a career-ending injury. It’s Kilmer’s fault — he insisted on pumping Harbor full of cortisone and forcing him to play until he was no longer physically able, costing him a college football scholarship.

When Moxon starts calling his own plays, gets Wendell into the end zone and generally pisses off his coach while still winning, Kilmer goes ballistic. He threatens to alter Moxon’s transcripts and derail his plan to attend college on an academic scholarship. But Moxon’s teammates have had enough of Kilmer’s antics, and they mutiny during halftime of the final game of the season. Kilmer’s team will only take the field of the second half without him, and the coach must relent or risk further public humiliation. The team wins the game, and Kilmer is forced to leave West Canaan and football for good.

The Longest Yard (2005)

In this remake of the original 1974 film that starred Burt Reynolds, prison inmates play a football game against a group of racist, sadistic prison guards who are constantly abusing their power.

In the 2005 version, Adam Sandler plays Reynolds’ role of washed-up quarterback Paul Crewe. Crewe isn’t an easy person to root for. Besides point-shaving, Crewe endangers himself and others when he gets drunk and leads police on a high-speed car chase in his girlfriend’s Bentley.

When he gets to prison, the warden, Rudolph Hazen (James Cromwell), forces Crewe to assemble a ragtag team of prisoners to give the guards an easy, confidence-boosting win before their season playing against guards from other prisons begins. The other prisoners sign on because they see an opportunity to give the guards a taste of their own depraved behavior. They’re comically bad at first, but under Crewe’s stewardship, they pull together. They start to develop hope and confidence of their own. Maybe they can really win this thing!

The black prisoners, led by Cheeseburger Eddy (Terry Crews), are loath to join the team until another prisoner, Megget (Nelly), is forced to swallow his dignity and pride. The guards confront Megget in the prison library and repeatedly call him “n—–,” in an attempt to cajole him into a fight. Megget resists the bait but relishes the opportunity to get his revenge on the field.

Once game day arrives, the prisoners are unaware that Hazen has made a deal with Crewe to throw the game. Crewe must comply or face life in prison for a murder he didn’t commit, one that resulted in the death of his closest jail friend, Caretaker (Chris Rock).

When the big day arrives, Crewe starts out leading the prisoners in what looks like a rout of the guards. Hazen reminds Crewe what he has to lose, and Crewe begins to throw the game. But he has a crisis of conscience and tells his teammates what’s happening. He decides to try to beat the guards anyway, leading the prisoners to a game-tying touchdown and a two-point conversion to win as the clock runs out.

In both Varsity Blues and The Longest Yard, the protests are led by charismatic white quarterbacks who have their own grievances but are happy to loop in those of black players as well. Would kneeling be more acceptable if Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady had started doing it first, citing the same reasons as Kaepernick? Would Brady and Rodgers be criticized as un-American and unpatriotic, or praised for their compassion and for using their privilege to help minorities? And if the reactions to them would be different from those to Kaepernick or other black players, what does that say?

Both The Longest Yard and Varsity Blues feature unambiguously terrible antagonists in the warden, prison guards and Kilmer. They paint pictures of racists as unsubtle, selfish and uncultivated. They portray bigotry as a problem of individual extremists rather than something that’s endemic to the country. Again, we’re faced with the luxuries afforded by (admittedly uncomplicated) character development. If we don’t know NFL players and owners as well as we know the characters in these movies, how do we judge their actions?

The White Shadow (1978-81)

Ken Howard (right) portrayed high school basketball coach Ken Reeves and Byron Stewart (left) portrayed student and athlete Warren “Cool” Coolidge in the CBS series The White Shadow.

CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images

Ken Howard stars as Ken Reeves, a former player for the Chicago Bulls who injured his knee, ending his professional career. One of his college teammates, Jim Willis (Ed Bernard), offers him a job coaching basketball at the dilapidated, majority-black Carver High School in Los Angeles. The team is a band of undisciplined misfits — Reeves has a bad habit of referring to them as “animals.”

Carver’s star player, James Hayward (Thomas Carter), needs a job to care for his mother, who has ulcers, and his siblings because their father is dead. Another player, Curtis Jackson, doesn’t want to face the fact that he has a drinking problem.

Unlike the other examples here, the relationship between Reeves and the team is more symbiotic than purely adversarial. The chief conflict doesn’t hinge on Reeves being a bad person. Rather, Reeves is blindly navigating his new job and everything it entails. He’s in charge of a group of players who talk back and who are skeptical of authority because they’ve learned that no one expects much of them. The state of Carver’s campus — strewn with detritus, missing letters on its signage — communicates to its students that they don’t matter much. And if the students know they don’t matter, how is anyone going to be able to get them to care about school?

Vice principal Sybil Buchanan (Joan Pringle) acts as interpreter and student advocate in her interactions with Reeves, giving a credible voice to the players’ concerns. She tells Reeves he’s not a “white knight” and won’t be able to swoop in to the school and fix everything in 20 minutes. She’s indignant when Reeves enlists the team to move him into his new apartment on a Saturday for free, telling him the days of slave labor are over. Reeves and Buchanan are working toward the same goal, which is helping the students. But she and the basketball team are teaching a man who probably doesn’t think he’s racist not to behave like one. Created by Bruce Paltrow, The White Shadow offers a more nuanced view of race and racism than The Longest Yard or Varsity Blues. And it also says something about what it takes to be a useful ally.

Eddie (1996)

Whoopi Goldberg (center) starred in Eddie.

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Eddie (Whoopi Goldberg) is a limo dispatcher and devoted New York Knicks fan who wins a public relations contest to coach the floundering team. There’s a twist though: Eddie’s a pretty decent coach. Fans like her.

Eddie becomes more than a novelty act. She quickly discovers there’s more to coaching than calling plays. She’s the team’s chief haranguer, marriage counselor, therapist and mother. Her pestering and rule-setting pays off, and the team starts not only winning but also enjoying basketball again. They lose their arrogance and sense of entitlement once they realize they have a person who cares about them as more than ball-dribbling widgets to be yelled at, traded and cut. She’s a real coach.

Meanwhile, the team’s owner, “Wild Bill” Burgess (Frank Langella), a Texas billionaire oil baron, has decided to convert the Knicks’ unbelievable good fortune into profits — by secretly negotiating a move that would send the team to St. Louis.

Eddie, once she gets wind of the plan, stands up to the man whose ego is about as inflated as the 10-gallon Stetson on his head. Burgess sees the Knicks as chess pieces he can move about the country at his pleasure. When he won’t listen to Eddie privately, she takes their disagreement public, revealing Burgess’ plans to a packed house at Madison Square Garden and daring him to censure her for it. After Eddie risks the job she loves and the cushiest salary she’s ever had in her life, it’s not just her team who backs her up. It’s the city of New York.

In Varsity Blues and The Longest Yard, the athletes in question are not millionaires. The audience doesn’t have to overcome feelings of class resentment to sympathize with them. But what happens when that’s not the case? What happens when the players in revolt are professionals who make piles and piles of money?

You use an intermediary.

Eddie received terrible reviews when it was released in 1996, but it’s really smart about one thing: It uses Eddie first as a vehicle for criticizing spoiled players. And then, once it’s clear that Eddie is a sports fan, just like the audience, the perspective of who is “good” and “bad” begins to shift. Once we see Eddie and the Knicks players as part of the same team, working toward the same goal of making the NBA playoffs, we’re willing to accept their revolt — which, again, is public — against Wild Bill.

There’s a delicate balance that’s achieved, and there’s a thoughtfulness in positioning Eddie this way. When she stands up to Wild Bill, she’s a fan advocating for other fans. Eddie comes the closest of these shows to placing fans (particularly the ones who have been vocal about wanting athletes to sit down and shut up) on the same side as the pro athletes who make so much more than they do. Even though the movie isn’t directly about race, it illustrates how being rich doesn’t automatically zero out the balance on life’s problems. It doesn’t matter how much money you make if your boss simply sees you as a moneymaking property, and that’s a sentiment any populist can get behind.

O.J. Simpson is a relic in a new culture that celebrates unapologetic blackness The Juice re-enters American society at its most divided since his ‘Trial of the Century’

O.J. like, “I’m not black, I’m O.J.” / Okay / House n—a, don’t f— with me / I’m a field n—a with shined cutlery.

— Jay-Z, 2017’s “The Story of O.J.


Fate has a fetish for O.J. Simpson. Oct. 1 is nearly 22 years to the day of both his acquittal after the double-murder trial that captivated the world and nine years since being sentenced for armed robbery and kidnapping in Las Vegas. Both happened on an Oct. 3. And now the sharp winds of the judicial and correctional system once again gust in the direction of the 1968 Heisman Trophy winner. After serving nine years, the man known as “Prisoner 1027820” in Nevada’s Lovelock Correctional Center is free.

Emphasis on free. Because what does it mean? What has it ever meant? And can O.J. Simpson, in particular, ever truly obtain freedom? He re-enters American society at its most divided since his “Trial of the Century,” and we are right now in an era defined by social, cultural and racial injustices — and the resistance and protests against them. The line between sports, culture and politics is as blurred and polarizing as it’s been since the 1960s. And the black world that Simpson sought to escape via football and a white wife is a world he can no longer run from — if he ever could. “The heartbreaking truth is,” says columnist and author Rochelle Riley, “O.J. Simpson is coming out of prison, and having to wake up black.”


Simpson’s former employer, the National Football League, looks a lot different from the one that existed before his 2008 conviction. There are Ezekiel Elliott’s crop tops and Dez Bryant’s custom Air Jordan cleats, Richard Sherman’s and Marshawn Lynch’s locks, and Odell Beckham’s Head & Shoulders-endorsed blond hair. There’s the NFL’s more cautious style of play apropos of player safety. Some aspects remain the same though — like the ongoing issue of the league’s embarrassing, harmful and erratically applied discipline for domestic violence offenders.

The NFL’s biggest lightning rod isn’t even in the league. Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protest, intended to shine light on police brutality and the inequalities that persist within the criminal justice system, has reverberated far beyond football. Athletes like LeBron James, Stephen Curry, soccer star Megan Rapinoe, Oakland A’s rookie Bruce Maxwell and the WNBA’s Indiana Fever have lent support to the exiled former Super Bowl signal-caller.

Kaepernick’s won adoration from and influenced Stevie Wonder, Tina Lawson, Chuck D, Carlos Santana, Kendrick Lamar, Cardi B, J. Cole and others. Jay-Z donned a custom Colin Kaepernick jersey on the season premiere of Saturday Night Live, as Nick Cannon rocked a classic one at a recent St. Louis protest after the acquittal of Police Officer Jason Stockley for the killing of Anthony Lamar Smith. His No. 7 San Francisco 49ers jersey is now in New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, and the National Museum of African American History and Culture announced in May that various Kaepernick items will be featured in future exhibits.

There’s no hierarchy in terms of the pain of dealing with black death, but it’s no secret Travyon Martin stands out. He’s this generation’s “Trial of the Century.”

The NFL also sits embroiled in a beef with President Donald Trump over protests inspired by Kaepernick — the same Donald Trump who entertained the idea of a reality show with Simpson back in 2008. And while we’re on reality shows, Simpson enters a world dominated by Kardashians. Keeping Up with the Kardashians has been a fixture in American pop culture since its premiere, 10 years ago this month. The family became famous during the fracas of Simpson’s first trial, where attorney Robert Kardashian — Simpson’s close friend and father of Kim, Khloe, Kourtney and Rob — was part of O.J.’s legal “Dream Team.” Kim’s husband, the Adidas designer and Grammy awardwinning producer/rapper/cultural live wire Kanye West, references Simpson in 2016’s “THat Part”: I just left the strip club, got some glitter on me/ Wifey gonna kill me, she the female O.J.

Where we are now is this: Athletes and entertainers (and many, many others) have called the president of the United States outside of his name — and the president and his supporters clap back, tit for tat. There’s a culture war going on, and while it’s different from the 1960s and ’70s, it’s a vibe O.J. is all too familiar with. He’s seen it move like this before.

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Consider the American psyche leading up to the pivotal year of 1967, Simpson’s first season as tailback at the University of Southern California, a private, predominantly white institution surrounded by black neighborhoods in Los Angeles. In 1961, 61 percent of Americans disapproved of the “Freedom Riders.” Fifty-seven percent viewed lunch counter “sit-ins” as hurtful “to the Negro’s chances of being integrated in the South.” The 1963 March on Washington was viewed unfavorably by 60 percent of voters. And by January 1967, 53 percent of voters believed black people, instead of protesting for equal rights, would be better off taking “advantage of the opportunities that have been made available.”

Compare all this to a survey conducted by Global Strategy Group for ESPN from Sept. 26-28, just days before Simpson’s release. A clear racial divide exists: 72 percent of African-Americans strongly or somewhat agree with the protests, which were started by Kaepernick last season. Sixty-two percent of white people strongly or somewhat disagree. Other polls revealed similar numbers.

In 1967, like in 2017, everybody makes the decisions they make. On April 28, 1967, when Muhammad Ali was stripped of his heavyweight title after refusing induction into the U.S. Army, the revolt of the black athlete entered the living rooms of Americans. This was the same year O.J. Simpson rushed into USC immortality and the American consciousness with 1,543 yards and 13 touchdowns. This was the same year that, on Thanksgiving Day, Harry Edwards, a sociology professor at San Jose State, organized the Western Regional Black Youth Conference. The gathering of about 200 people discussed the possibility of boycotting the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Sprinters Tommie Smith and Lee Evans were there, as was UCLA’s star center Lew Alcindor (who became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). “Winning gold medals for a country where I don’t have my freedom is irrelevant,” Smith said at the meeting. “So far I have not won my freedom, and I will not turn back from my decision.” Alcindor refused to try out for the Olympic team, prompting critics to label him a national disgrace and an “uppity n—–.”

Though at a Western school, O.J. Simpson didn’t attend the conference. His epic 64-yard touchdown vs. UCLA, less than a week before, propelled USC to the national championship. Edwards had approached Simpson about lending his name and influence to the cause. Simpson disassociated himself from the movement, famously telling Edwards, “I’m not black. I’m O.J.” Smith and Carlos’ decision to speak out hurt their careers, in Simpson’s eyes. He wasn’t going down like that. “He absolutely distances himself from everything, which turns out to be a pretty good career move,” says Dr. Matthew Andrews. “It opens up all these doors in advertising, movies and so on.”

Focus on Sport/Getty Images

The assassinations of Martin Luther King and presidential candidate Robert Kennedy defined 1968. Riots erupted throughout the country. Black America had seemingly reached its breaking point. The defiant and painful image of John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s black power fists at the Mexico City Olympics ingrained itself in sports and American history. Meanwhile, O.J.’s celebrity ballooned as he separated himself from the swelling movement. He won the Heisman in 1968 and was the first overall selection in the 1969 draft. For the next two and a half decades, Simpson enjoyed the fruits of his decision and became one of the most recognizable, marketable and celebrated black men in America.


“You see, O.J. was under that illusion — ain’t been black since he was 17. Under that illusion of inclusion — [until he] got That N—- Wake-Up Call. Only n—- I know that could get on any golf course in America. They loved that boy! He had to come home when it got rough.”Paul Mooney, 1994

Simpson’s goal seemed to be: live a deracinated life. He didn’t want to make white people uncomfortable. He was handsome, charming and safe — and so, with 1969’s Chevrolet deal, became the first black corporate pitchman before playing a down in the NFL. Long after his playing career, Simpson was one of the few black faces on screen, as an actor or a commentator, during the late ’70s and early ’80s. “O.J.’s providing a very meaningful image for black kids in America,” said Ezra Edelman recently. He’s the Oscar-winning director of 2016’s O.J.: Made In America. “He deserves his due for the way he influenced culture, beyond being on trial for murder in 1994 and ’95.”

O.J. Simpson for Hertz, in 1978

Master Tesfatsion, 26, doesn’t remember the “Trial of the Century.” He’s a Redskins beat reporter for The Washington Post, and one of his most recent stories is about cornerback Josh Norman pledging $100,000 to Puerto Rico’s victims of Hurricane Maria. Tesfatsion’s first memory of O.J. is the 1997 civil case that ordered Simpson to pay $25 million to the families of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. Growing up Eritrean-American in Section 8 housing in Irving, Texas, Tesfatsion’s early O.J. knowledge primarily came from the neighborhood. “I just trusted the OGs,” he says. “If everyone on the block was telling you O.J. ain’t do it, what are you supposed to think?”

“O.J. really is this wisp of memory that is not as important because so much has happened since.”

Tesfatsion’s generation? They were kids when Simpson’s criminal trial happened. And they are well-aware of how deeply racial dynamics and police distrust played into Simpson’s case, and into their own lives. “People always think because you have a certain wealth status, whether it’s white people or even black people who are rich, they think they can escape colorism,” says the Arizona State graduate. “O.J. has proven on the highest of levels that that’s not the case.”

Tesfatsion remembers the passion the case evoked in his parents, and what was clearly two different Americas. So many white people mourned the not guilty verdict. So many black people celebrated quietly, or as if it were an NBA Finals victory for the home team. “The heartbreaking point about O.J.,” says Riley, whose The Burden: African-Americans and the Enduring Impact of Slavery is being published in February, “is not whether he got away with murder — if he did — but black Americans have been so mistreated and denied justice so many times and for so long that his acquittal was seen as a needed win.”

Simpson is a poster child for race and the legal system, but for Tesfatsion’s generation, he’s not on whom they hang their hat. Simpson’s verdict now of course has rivals in cases that have come to define this generation’s adulthood. “For a generation and a half, O.J. is not this larger-than-life person who meant so much, and who people paid attention to so much,” says Riley. “[O.J.] really is this wisp of memory that is not as important, because so much has happened since.”

Many of the same factors that came into play during the “Trial of the Century”—black bodies, white superiority complexes, and the assumption of black guilt have defined the cases of the Sandra Blands, Philando Castiles, Tamir Rices and Michael Browns. There’s no hierarchy in terms of the pain of dealing with black death, but it’s no secret Travyon Martin stands out. He’s this generation’s “Trial of the Century.”

“[Trayvon] was mine,” says Tesfatsion. “It was crazy how caught up I was into it.” Zimmerman’s not guilty verdict was delivered on his 22nd birthday. “To expect one thing, and see the other result, you know, as an African-American, the anger that you feel and the disappointment you feel it’s hard to explain.”


The question no one can truly answer is what happens next for O.J. Simpson. Fresh out of jail, he missed the entire presidency of Barack Obama and enters a world driven by Donald Trump — whose Twitter-fueled presidency has roots in the 24/7, reality-TV celebrity obsession culture rooted in the insanity that was his first trial. Rumors of a return to Hollywood even exist.

Former football legend O.J. Simpson signs documents at the Lovelock Correctional Center, Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017, in Lovelock, Nev. Simpson was released from the Lovelock Correctional Center in northern Nevada early Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017.

Brooke Keast/Nevada Department of Corrections via AP

But if there’s one reality starkly different from the one Simpson encountered pre-prison—and the beginning of it was the 24/7 coverage of his trial — it’s the extinction of the veil of anonymity. Does he attempt to live a life of modesty and recluse? Or has a nearly decade-long, state-mandated vacation done little to change him? Simpson’s been called a sociopath, one who craves constant attention strictly on his terms. Yet social media, his lawyers suggest, won’t be an issue for him. But he’s never dealt with the monster that is this iteration of media: social breaks stories and develops narratives before the first byline is written. Cameras don’t just sit on shoulders anymore, they sit in the palms of everybody’s hands. One click equals global broadcast.

Many already aren’t willing to deal with the potential fallout. Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi is attempting to bar him from the state — the same Sunshine State that houses the infamous generational antagonist George Zimmerman.

Dr. Andrews thinks that whatever the case, it will be interesting. “Which O.J. is he going to be? One would argue that pre-trial O.J. would distance himself from what many NFL players are doing. Certainly distancing himself from what Kaepernick’s doing. What Kaepernick did is exactly what [Tommie] Smith and [John] Carlos did in 1968. O.J. wanted no parts of that. [This] O.J. might get it a little more.”

But, Andrews asks, “Do you really want O.J. to be the spokesperson for this battle in racial justice?”

Riley is more than willing to answer. “The most important thing he could do for himself and America is to not answer the question,” Riley says. “To not weigh in and not try and make himself relevant in any way that he shouldn’t.”

It’s not just the NFL, and O.J. Simpson, but America itself that sits at a crossroads. All three face illness they never really addressed let alone medicated. O.J. walked out of prison Sunday a ghostlike relic of injustices he ignored, injustices he experienced and injustices he helped create. There is undeniable irony in karma greeting Simpson more harshly than his generational contemporaries. Ali, Abdul-Jabbar, Smith, Carlos and so many others were in their early 20s fighting demons older than America itself. The athletes were considered pariahs then but stand as saints of progress now. The same will one day be said about Colin Kaepernick. And about those for whom the killings of Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Mike Brown and others inspire a lifetime of resistance and service.

This is the third time O.J. Simpson experiences the first day of the rest of his life. Everybody isn’t that lucky.

Gregg Popovich’s speech about white privilege felt like a personal rebuke But now I’m starting to understand what it means

White Privilege: (noun). The fact of people with white skin having advantages in society that other people do not have.

Monday afternoon in downtown Washington, D.C., and every one of the overhead office televisions is leading with NFL franchises responding to the 45th president of the United States, who called anthem-protesting players “sons of bitches” last week and implored owners to tell these kneeling men, reality TV-style, “You’re fired!”

Then Gregg Popovich’s cloudy-white visage filled the screen, making me feel like crap.

“We still have no clue of what being born white means,” the coach of the San Antonio Spurs said in the middle of a three-minute, Check Your Privilege, Mr. President, scolding. “It’s like you’re at the 50-meter mark in a 100-meter dash. And you’ve got that kind of a lead because, yes, you were born white. You have advantages that are systemically, culturally, psychologically there. And they have been built up and cemented for hundreds of years.”

My colleagues, almost all of whom are black, nodded approvingly because Pop “gets it,” and some vowed to become Spurs fans simply because of his comments. I did the same.

But I also had this pang gnawing at me all day and into the night.

The truth: Many well-intentioned white people I know lose their minds when they hear about their “white privilege.” It’s not that we haven’t acknowledged our ancestors’ original sin — the dehumanization of a people, manifested in tragically being able to call another human being “property.” We have.

But fully accepting that the color of our skin benefits us today is often too much to unpack.

When we hear, “Check your privilege,” we feel ostracized from the people we thought shared the common purpose of equality with us. Further, if we are directly confronting racism in our online and physical worlds, we don’t want to hear, “Thanks, but there is no extra credit for doing what is right.”

We want an impossible validation: to be told that, unlike those Confederate-lovin’ nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, we don’t have white privilege.

And that gets to dissecting the meaning of privilege — separating the feelings of personal slight from a systemic inequity. Which is flat-out hard. We either a) don’t believe it; b) don’t think we are participants in it; or c) will engage to a point but ultimately decide, “I’m sorry, I don’t share this outlook on the world.”

It was only after hearing Popovich that I realized that we who continue to bullheadedly think that way represent a real obstacle toward achieving this elusive better place we always talk about.

Look, this isn’t something Colin Kaepernick or Michael Bennett can fix alone, just as Tommie Smith and John Carlos couldn’t fix it in 1968. This isn’t something any person of color can change by himself.

This is a difficult white-person-to-white-person conversation that has to happen between white men and women of all classes for any lasting change to occur. Black and brown people already know this. It’s not news to them that we have advantages bestowed at birth that they don’t.

If you can’t accept that white people have it easier, then you will never accept why someone would kneel during the national anthem. And until those two are reconciled, we shouldn’t expect people to stand — especially those most adversely affected by society’s unfair constructs.

We want an impossible validation: to be told that, unlike those Confederate-lovin’ nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, we don’t have white privilege.

The display of unity on Sunday, with some NFL owners linking arms with their players, was indeed an act of togetherness. But it was in response to the president crudely calling out their employees — not black men being killed by police. They were standing up for the NFL, not human rights. If Sunday was it, all they did was participate in a photo op that made everyone feel good.

We don’t need to feel good right now; we need to feel uncomfortable.

It’s a process. For one, hearing we have “white privilege” feels like it carries a stigma, as if we have been branded “racist” and don’t know why. It’s almost like a virus one needs to be inoculated from at a CVS pharmacy each fall.

But, of course, it doesn’t work like that. We don’t have a disease — society does.

Author and consultant Frances E. Kendall’s 2002 essay Understanding White Privilege put it this way: “For me, the confusion and pain of this knowledge is somewhat eased by reminding myself that this system is not based on each individual white person’s intention to harm but on our racial group’s determination to preserve what we believe is rightly ours. This distinction is, on one hand, important, and, on the other hand, not important at all because, regardless of personal intent, the impact is the same.”

In other words, hearing you have “white privilege” shouldn’t carry an ounce of baggage, even if the language feels accusatory. I know it took me a while to get there.

I have, for much of my life, failed to acknowledge that privilege. I rationalized that I did not have it because my papa-was-a-rolling-stone father moved us to a rural area of Hawaii when I was 12 — and I faced ugly prejudice for being white. (Everyone, by the way, should be on the other side of the fence at least once in their life to see what it’s like.) Given my own life circumstances, I reasoned it didn’t apply to me, that my own broken-home, abusive childhood didn’t involve any suburban cul-de-sacs or regular visits to the dentist, so what do I know about privilege?

But when you begin to think deeply about your own life experiences compared with your friends of color, it’s harder to dismiss.

I’ve never had to educate my young sons to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection, to warn them of law enforcement officers who might not give them the benefit of the doubt.

I’ve never applied for a home loan and suspected that I was turned down because some of my prospective neighbors only want to live next to and around people who look and think like them.

Privilege is when a deranged racist murders multiple black worshippers at a church Bible study and, upon seeing the race of the individual who did it, you did not have to say to your friend, “Damn, now they’re going to think all of us white folk are racist killers.”

The biggest benefit of being white: Our problems are far less likely to be attributed to some racial/cultural failure. Our government will hear our cries and not tell us to get over it but rather, in point of fact, ask us how it can help (even if the help doesn’t always come).

If Popovich is honest, white privilege is what allows him to make those statements in the first place. Meanwhile, coach Mike Tomlin, who’s never had a losing season, has been to two Super Bowls, won one and has guided the Pittsburgh Steelers to more wins the past decade than any team except the Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots, is walking a tightrope at this minute, trying to keep his protest-torn team together while not being shunned by his boss and the team’s customers.

“People get bored. ‘Oh, is it that again? They’re pulling the race card again, why do we have to talk about that again?’ ” Popovich said. “Well, it’s because it’s uncomfortable and there has to be an uncomfortable element in the discourse for anything to change. People have to be made to feel uncomfortable, and especially white people — because we are comfortable.”

I don’t like hearing this. It forces me to confront truths I don’t necessarily want to accept, because I don’t remember any breaks given me or job opportunities offered because of my complexion. But I’d be in denial to not believe that in numerous situations my race has helped me — in ways I never even notice.

Popovich’s statements are a piece of a conversation between white people that needs to happen more frequently. Whether there are enough people who look like me willing to engage in that conversation is an open question.

At least this week, though, his gruffness and often-annoying certainty about everything turned out to be good for more than just lighting a fire under Tim Duncan’s tush:

“Many people can’t look at it because it’s too difficult. It can’t be something that is on their plate on a daily basis,” he said. “People want to hold their position. People want the status quo. People don’t want to give that up. And until it’s given up, it’s not going to be fixed.”

Anyone else white want to take a stab at it? It’s the only way the work of everyone from Muhammad Ali to Colin Kaepernick will ever get done.

John Carlos, John Wooten know Kaepernick’s road is a long one After 50 years of fighting for change, these old warriors are unbowed but tired

Five decades before a backup NFL quarterback used the national anthem to tell America it can do better — enraging a U.S. president and millions of others, suffering the personal and professional consequences — John Carlos did the same.

He was the original.

He paid his dues, put in the time, working for social change for so long that he and Tommie Smith, his teammate on that Olympic podium in Mexico City, became the gold standard of athlete activism. They’re now so revered for their conviction and courage during the bubbling-over racial cauldron of the 1960s that there are statues of them on their college campus at San Jose State.

Carlos is now 72 years old. But he still can’t smell the roses. Or catch barely a sniff of satisfaction for all the work put in. His voice is raspy. He sounds exhausted. He knew it wasn’t over, this centuries-old cage fight for human rights. He just figured there would be more enlightened soldiers by now.

“It’s been a wakeup call for the last 50 f—ing years to let them know,” Carlos says from his home in Atlanta. “Excuse my language.”

“Like I been sayin’ for 50 years, there ain’t no neutrality. You gotta be on one side or the other. This man [President Donald Trump] is pushing them to make a decision, to find out who they really are. It’s time to get involved, to speak your truth — ‘You’re going to call me for what I am and respond to me for what I am’ — or you’re going to be a sucka for all eternity.”

You don’t want to be a sucka for all eternity.


A group of top African-American athletes from different sporting disciplines gather to give support and hear the boxer Muhammad Ali give his reasons for rejecting the draft during the Vietnam War, at a meeting of the Negro Industrial and Economic Union, held in Cleveland, June 4, 1967. Seated in the front row, from left to right: Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, and Kareem Abdul Jabbar. Standing behind them are: Carl Stokes, Walter Beach, Bobby Mitchell, Sid Williams, Curtis McClinton, Willie Davis, Jim Shorter and John Wooten.

Bettmann/Contributor/Getty Images

John Wooten was blocking for Jim Brown in Cleveland and learned a brother needed help: Muhammad Ali was facing charges for refusing to fight the war in Vietnam. Wooten began calling famous black athletes willing to stand with Ali at the Cleveland Summit. From Brown to the future Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, they all said, “No problem, we’ll be there.”

He knew it wouldn’t be over in 1967 when he stood behind The Greatest and alongside Bill Russell at that historic conclave of change agents. But 50 years later, Wooten is 80 years old, and there’s no sense of triumph for him either. No sense of finality in his war against inequality.

It’s going on midnight at his home in Arlington, Texas. He’s tired, the words tumbling slowly and deliberately through the receiver.

“It’s obvious to me that nowhere does our president understand the Constitution of this country,” says Wooten, the chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which promotes diversity in the coaching ranks and front offices of the NFL. “Because those players standing or kneeling or sitting did not break one single law of this country, nor have they broken any rule in the National Football League.”

Wooten has a couple of more thoughts before going to bed, so he can get up and fight tomorrow.

“When does unsportsmanlike conduct come in when men are standing to show this country that they are concerned about the young people being killed across the country? Are the football players and athletes to pretend this doesn’t exist?”


These two athletic icons for human rights know that change comes embarrassingly slowly. Fighting for it is soul-siphoning hard. Discouragement and defeat are just as frequent, if not more frequent, than success and victory. It wears you down and can leave you bitter.

“Listen, man, they are out there all the time,” said Carlos of the racists in our midst. “When they come, they come in numbers. The real sad thing is, they’re more united than we’ve ever been. Even people now, they think these dudes [protesting] hate their country instead of fighting for a better world and saying we can do better. Fifty years after Tommie and me, really, how far have we come?”

“It’s time to get involved, to speak your truth — ‘You’re going to call me for what I am and respond to me for what I am’ — or you’re going to be a sucka for all eternity.” – John Carlos

Next summer is the golden anniversary of Carlos and Smith bowing their heads, standing on the podium without shoes to symbolize American poverty, and raising their gloved fists. The next day they were expelled from the U.S. team and sent home. For the next 10 years, “my life was hell,” Carlos told Vox last year. He lost much more than money: friends, his marriage. They loved him. But they were scared they, too, would be ostracized.

Ali’s anti-war position was blasphemy to many Americans in 1967. But “we didn’t care about any perceived threats,” Wooten told the Cleveland Plain-Dealer this past year to mark the summit’s anniversary. “We weren’t concerned because we weren’t going to waver. We were unified. We all had a real relationship with each other, and we knew we were doing something for the betterment of all.”

The country forked in thought with some repulsed and others viewing their acts as courageous.

Just like … now.

“Why does it take for [Trump] to make that one statement to make all [players] react now, when they know they should’ve reacted earlier anyway?” Carlos said. “They should have been out there a long time ago to support [Colin] Kaepernick and Michael Bennett. They all should have been rallying around them.

“But Trump done put it on the line now and told them, ‘If you do it, we gon’ spank your a–.’ And that’s a threat. So now it’s on the owners — should they disrespect the will of their players, their human rights?”

Says Wooten: “I hope these players will … show the president and the country the unity felt by all of us who want to see a better, more just world. And that those who feel it is an affront to patriotism will one day see that this act of solidarity is about making America better, not worse.”

Many NFL owners locked arms with their players on Sunday. Some released statements in support of their socially conscious employees. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith bonded over a common enemy.

“Those players standing or kneeling or sitting did not break one single law of this country, nor have they broken any rule in the National Football League.” – John Wooten

Former Cleveland Browns great John Wooten watches during an NFL football game between the Browns and New York Jets on Sunday, Nov. 14, 2010, in Cleveland.

AP Photo/David Richard

Wooten is more measured than Carlos, who is animated, sometimes angry and trying ineffectually to avoid a public scrap with Trump.

“The man is creating so much division in the country,” he continued. “You better get ready for the next Civil War, brother. Not to mention the wall. What can I say, man? If I get out there right now, I’m going to lambaste the man so bad, ’cause I ain’t gonna hold s— back about where his mind his. I don’t want to get into no running battle with this fool.”

Voice rising, Carlos is spiritually back in the ’60s. And, of course, that’s the most wrenching part: Fifty years later, not enough has changed.


Large chunks of our society don’t see black men kneeling for racial justice and a more equitable country. They see people demeaning Arlington National Cemetery’s dead.

Wooten and Carlos know of this historical bait and switch. They refuse to allow #TakeAKnee to be reframed as a referendum on “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It’s a protest of police brutality and racism, the often senseless killing of black men by overwhelmingly white law enforcement. That’s it.

“You would think the NFL is a Hollywood show now, the way they promote it on TV, where it’s about family and inclusive and we’re all happy,” Carlos says derisively.

“Until we go into a meeting to find out why this young man isn’t in the NFL now playing. He’s played for several years. He’s gone to the Super Bowl. He’s better than a lot of quarterbacks in the league. Why is it that he’s not playing? But [Goodell] refuses to answer and address that, and the public refuses to demand him to do that. And everybody eats it up and does nothing.”

Carlos is resigned to the fact that most people will never care as much as he does. Wooten is more hopeful, if equally tired. For 50 years, nothing has happened quickly for either of them.

It’s the right fight; it’s just not an easy one. You devote your life to something for that long, you pay a price. People get burned out. It’s deflating.

But the best of them keep going, because they know the alternative. It’s too important, too ingrained in their identities. Today’s players need their wisdom and strength now just as Ali and Smith needed them then.

John Carlos is 72. John Wooten is 80. Their joints throb. They’re tired. And 50 years later, they still live for the fight.