In the end, efforts to organize a boycott failed; athletes felt they had trained too hard to sacrifice their medal chances. But Carlos and Smith found a way to protest with their shoes and their gloves, and Carlos now believes it was the right gesture. Had they boycotted, no one would have heard what they had to say, he recently told Zirin. “Who remembers that Kareem Abdul Jabbar stayed home?” Zirin points out.
It’s difficult to know which issues would have concerned King most or exactly what action he would have urged against the Sochi Games. Would he have called for a boycott because of Russia’s anti-homosexual laws, or would he have demonstrated outside stadiums to protest the corruptions in Olympic construction projects documented by Human Rights Watch — or both? But the one thing we can know is that King viewed human rights as the natural extension of civil rights. “He was talking for everyone, not just people of color,” his son Martin Luther King III said on SiriusXM this week. And we can be sure he would have no patience with IOC President Jacques Rogge’s habit of standing on the sidelines and mouthing “pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities.”
“He was in favor of direct action,” said the Rev. Gary Hall, dean of Washington National Cathedral. “He might be more willing to risk direct political action than others would.”
King’s genius was for demonstrations that pulled the mask of moderation away from intolerable situations. With that calm and perfect honesty, he exposed the inherent violence in situations that masqueraded as civic order. He dismantled inverted moralities until right and wrong assumed their proper places again and we understood which man was truly interested in higher moral order and which was the real brute. His main strategy was to publicly embarrass evil until it shriveled.
The IOC is intolerable. It has completely inverted morality, and it badly needs embarrassing. Ice palaces have been built on evicted homes and the backs of abused workers, gays are beaten and jailed but the IOC’s position is that the Olympic athlete who is troubled by this will ruin the harmony and peace of the Games. The athlete who tries to use a voice in Sochi may or may not get arrested by Russian police — but he or she certainly will be disciplined by the IOC. This goes far beyond the apolitical. It’s actively evil. The IOC has created a code in which it’s wrong to discuss a wrong. It enlists athletes in a cover-up and orders them to cave in their own spines.
“Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest,” King once said.
Ted Ligety, that means you. Lindsey Vonn, that means you. If you have qualms about being labeled a radical among your more moderate teammates, then listen to this: “When you are right, you cannot be too radical,” King said. “When you are wrong, you cannot be too conservative.”
For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.