Atlanta Stokes a Civil Rights Conversation for Some Super Bowl Players — Ken Belson

The New York Times , 02.01.2019

Players in the Super Bowl rarely get out to see the sights, but this group, with the issues they champion so embroidered in the dialogue of the N.F.L., said they were determined to make Atlanta’s civil rights history part of their experience.

Another reminder of the tension between protest and change was on display a few miles away, at the High Museum of Art. There, an exhibit by Glenn Kaino, a conceptual artist from Los Angeles, brings to life the one-armed salute by the sprinter Tommie Smith at the Olympic Games in Mexico City in 1968. The decision by Smith and his teammate, John Carlos, to raise their clenched fists while wearing black gloves on the winner’s podium remains one of the most iconic gestures in sports and beyond.

Through prints, sculpture, video and items from Smith’s archives, the exhibit entitled, With Drawn Arms, shows how Smith, a world-record holder before the Olympics, was outspoken on issues of social injustice well before he raised his fist. It also showed how his views were framed by the media. One set of panels shows the cover of Newsweek magazine from July, 1968, with Smith’s photo and a headline, the Angry Black Athlete.

A four-minute trailer for an accompanying documentary played on a screen nearby. In one sequence, Smith and his wife, Delois, are in the White House with President Obama. In another, Smith — who lives about 20 miles from Atlanta — hugs Kaepernick.

“Tommie represents a historical moment that has a greater meaning about what went on around it,” said Michael Rooks, the curator of the exhibit, which was extended for the Super Bowl. The controversy over Kaepernick’s decision to kneel “is in the present and volatile and very much a moving target on where it will go, where the NFL will go as a policy, what it will mean for fans.”

In a large room with 144 gold-plated casts of Smith’s arm, suspended from the ceiling and arranged like a 100-foot long parabola, Enrique Beher, a cook, and Jaelyn Sims, a 20-year old student, said they were impressed with Smith’s powerful gesture, but also reminded of the debate Kaepernick started in the N.F.L.

“People think fighting for civil rights is about being against America,” Sims said. “But kneeling because you want America to be better, how is that not American?”