Correction: A previous version of this column said fewer people voted in this year's presidential election than voted in the 2012 presidential election.
A few days before the San Francisco 49ers’ final preseason game in August, their quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, stepped to a news conference room podium to explain why he stopped participating in the opening ritual of our sporting events — standing for the playing of the national anthem. From beneath a black baseball cap embroidered with a large white X, Kaepernick explained that he was protesting the seemingly epidemic extrajudicial killings of unarmed black men that so rarely resulted even in indictments.
His black cap paid homage to Malcolm X, the iconic black civil rights agitant who was assassinated just over half a century ago. It was an appropriate appropriation by Kaepernick, who many of us celebrated for being a multimillionaire athlete not fearful of making a political statement — and in a manner — with which his employer, its sponsors and fans would find discomfort.
But Kaepernick appeared this past week to see Malcolm X only as a prop rather than understand Malcolm X’s life as practicum.
When asked early Tuesday afternoon by San Francisco Chronicle sportswriter Eric Branch if he voted in our presidential election, Kaepernick answered, “No.”
When Branch asked Kaepernick if he planned to cast his ballot later, Kaepernick responded, again, “No.”
Malcolm X would be disappointed.
After all, in what many historians considered not only Malcolm X’s greatest speech, but one of the most notable political speeches of the last century, Malcolm X broke with the dictum of the black American Muslim movement in the middle 1960s and argued why black Americans should participate in electoral politics. He did so after witnessing what voting blocs of newly independent African nations had done for their consideration on the world stage.
“The black man in the black community has to be re-educated into the science of politics so he will know what politics is supposed to bring him in return,” Malcolm X told an audience on April 3, 1964, at Cory Methodist Church in Cleveland in a speech titled ‘The Ballot or the Bullet.’ “Don’t be throwing out any ballots. A ballot is like a bullet.”
Kaepernick treated his responsibility like a piece of junk mail. Sadly, he wasn’t alone.
Of the estimated 231 million people eligible to vote in the United States, only 131 million voted for Hillary Clinton or the President-elect Donald Trump on Tuesday. The United States continues to have the lowest voter participation rate in the industrialized world.
And a smaller share of eligible voters cast ballots in 2016 than in the 2012 presidential election, including black Americans, for whom Kaepernick overnight became a hero in protesting for Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Laquan McDonald, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and other black citizens killed by police or from encounters with them.
What Kaepernick has done in drawing attention to the inordinate number of black victims of police deadly force — kneeling during the Star-Spangled Banner — is to create a flash mob of sorts of protest. NFL players on other teams have dropped to one knee. Athletes in other sports have followed his lead, as have high school players and kids on peewee teams.
But what he didn’t do Tuesday undermined his noble histrionics.
His example of voting could have been an even more consequential act for those who look up, or over, to him as an example simply because he’s an athlete.
As Malcolm X — who tutored Muhammad Ali in part because of his visibility as an athletic star — came to express, there are often immediate and tangible consequences to voting that impact real people. The election we just experienced most likely will remind us of that for generations to come. It was an election that could least afford apathy, much like the 1964 presidential campaign between Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater that Malcolm X referenced and wound up shaping the contours of the partisan politics we have today with Democrats as a racial and ethnic coalition of liberals and the GOP as conservative whites.
To be sure, the very issue that drove Kaepernick to silently protest the national anthem was likely affected, and drastically, by Tuesday’s result. Black boys and men should expect to be at greater peril under the administration of Trump, who long has been dismissive of police brutality claims and ran on a law-and-order platform aligned with former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Both are advocates of stop-and-frisk policing ,which studies showed didn’t impact crime and, more disturbingly, targeted black males. The later finding landed New York City in court, where the policy was found to be discriminatory and unconstitutional.
Kaepernick suggested that he didn’t vote because he didn’t see any election result dismantling systemic racism in this country. That may be true.
But being dismissive of the process for such a reason ran counter to the reason to protest. It signaled defeat. It conceded victory. It recognized as supreme the very paradigm he sought to shift.
It also disrespected the names on the circular granite table across the street from the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., just around the corner from Dexter Avenue Baptist Church where Martin Luther King Jr. pastored during the Montgomery Bus Boycott in the middle ’50s. The inscribed names include Rev. George W. Lee, who was murdered in Belzoni, Miss., in 1955 after he refused white officials’ demand that he end his effort to register black people to vote. And Jimmie Lee Jackson, who died in Marion, Ala., from a beating and shooting by state troopers as he tried to protect his grandfather and mother during an attack on civil rights marchers.
The extrajudicial killing of Lee led to the Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march in 1965 that ended at the Alabama Capitol stairs, just around the corner from this Civil Rights Memorial to the movement’s martyrs. It took his death, and that of dozens of others, to get the Voting Rights Act passed.
It all reminds that social justice, for which Kaepernick’s actions have been lauded, is not achieved simply by a sole act, repeating a slogan or re-tweeting a hashtag. It is gained by a multi-skewered attack of which participation in the electoral process is among the prongs that anyone interested in change, including our new generation of protesters from the sports arena, should embrace.
Kevin B. Blackistone, ESPN panelist and visiting professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, writes sports commentary for The Post.