Nearly 50 people gathered Wednesday afternoon near Mercedes-Benz Stadium at a rally to support spurned NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick and his right to free speech while also bringing attention to the social injustices for which he stood up – or knelt down – last year during the playing of the national anthem.
Georgia State senator Vincent Fort, a candidate for mayor of Atlanta, was among the speakers.
The group plans to march on the Falcons’ new Mercedes-Benz Stadium when the team begins the regular season on Sept. 17.
Kaepernick, who led the 49ers to the Super Bowl after the 2012 season, found himself at the center of controversy when he opted to take a knee during the playing of the anthem before San Francisco games last season. He opted out of his contract after the season, and has not been hired by an NFL team since.
At the time, shortly after incidents around the U.S. of police violence in Baton Rouge, La., and Dallas that left young African-Americans dead, he said, “I am not going stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”
In a peaceful assembly just off of Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. at the Atlanta University Center with Mercedes-Benz looming about 2,000 yards behind her, Spelman junior and rally co-organizer Mary-Pat Hector said through a bullhorn that the gathering was about more than Kaepernick’s job status.
Beneath a canopy of Live Oak trees, she touched upon racial unrest last week in Charlottesville, Va., where one person died and several more were injured as white supremacists and Nazi sympathizers clashed with counter protesters and a motorist drove into a crowd.
“It’s about resisting white supremacist systems. It’s about the NFL perpetuating what we witnessed in Charlottesville; that is racism and discrimination,” Hector said. “The NFL is an organization that has openly supported men who have been accused and convicted of murder . . . rape . . . spousal abuse, animal abuse. All of these men were able to keep their jobs.
“When a black man decides to take a knee to bring awareness to issues affecting black and brown bodies . . . we should support him.”
Kaepernick has had a few job interviews in the NFL, but nobody has hired him and long-time observers of the League are generally of the opinion that he would not be worth hiring as a backup quarterback, but teams might be more willing to put up with potential distractions surrounding him if he was considered a starter.
The problem may be that his skill set appears to have slipped in recent years, and work ethic has come into question.
“It is really not about his ability," an NFL executive recently told the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram. "It's about the risk of what happens to the team concept when you sign a guy -- a quarterback -- who has put his personal agenda ahead of what we are all charged to do, which is put the team first.
Fort, who represents Georgia’s 39th district, said to the crowd, “Every time we have a chance, we ought to speak up for him. We ought to challenge the NFL. We ought to challenge the Atlanta Falcons. He’s being white-balled.”
Rally co-organizer Amber Le’Shea, who graduated from Spelman in 2007 and is a middle school math teacher in Brooklyn, met Hector through social media. They publicized the rally there, and plan more action.
Beyond their goal to gather again at the AUC on Sept. 17 and march to the new stadium, they’re encouraging fans to boycott the NFL, its television broadcasts and merchandise.
“Our money is our power. You can protest from your home by not turning on your TV,” Le’Shea said into the bullhorn. “I came to Atlanta because Mary wanted to have this rally . . . especially with this new stadium that displaced people of color and kind of destroyed a part of black history.”
Hector earlier this year lost in her bid to become one of the youngest people elected to public office in Georgia history when at age 19 she lost a runoff for a city council seat in DeKalb County’s Stonecrest community. The Lithonia resident has served as the National Youth Director for the National Action Network.