Civil rights leader to Alabama, Washington players: Black Lives Matter is too angry

ATLANTA -- Washington walk-on wide receiver Taelon Parson asked the question on many people's minds Tuesday night at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. once served as pastor.

For 70 minutes, black and white Washington and Alabama football players -- in town for the Peach Bowl -- listened to civil rights leaders Andrew Young, C.T. Vivian and Xernona Clayton. Most of the discussion focused on a movement from over 50 years ago that's either unknown or ancient history to 18-to-22-year-olds who are about to play in the College Football Playoff Semifinals.

Parson cut through the dialogue to seek relevance for today. He wanted to know what the next step for Black Lives Matter should be so his generation can make a difference in race relations.

Black Lives Matter crossed heavily into sports this year as America continues its longstanding struggle with race relations. Police shootings of blacks drew protests around the country, both in the streets and on the field, such as Colin Kaepernick and other athletes taking a knee during the national anthem.

Black Lives Matter protesters who blocked expressways committed a felony and acted "like people who were angry, and when you lose your temper in a fight, you lose the fight," said Young, a close friend of King who was executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the 1960s. "You see people get emotional in games and do something stupid, and it costs you 15 yards and maybe the game. That's true in life.

"These young people got angry and not thoughtful, and that's dangerous. It's not being militant, it's being stupid. Dr. King used to say in order to be free, you've got to overcome the love of wealth and the fear of death. If people can't buy you out or scare you out, then you can be free. But losing your temper, for me, is probably the worst sin."

Young, who later became a Congressman and U.S. ambassador, said the problem with Black Lives Matter protests is they became emotional instead of strategic.

"I think we were successful [in the Civil Rights Movement] because we had a long time to think through what the problem was," Young said. "I was nine years old when I first saw Thurgood Marshall argue a case in Louisiana. That was in 1941. It was 1961 before I joined with Martin Luther King. There was 20 years of preparation leading to what we did. So all of the ideas had been thought out, there had been case law, and we knew specifically what to do."

Vivian, now a 92-year-old minister, participated in Freedom Rides and sit-ins. He told the Alabama and Washington players that the people who made the greatest changes during the movement were spiritual men and women.

"If Martin Luther King hadn't been a spiritual man, we wouldn't be free now because your churches and my churches have never gotten really together to live a spiritual life," said Vivian, who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013. "We're still living cultural lives. We're cultural beings. We haven't become spiritual beings. Until we become spiritual beings, we cannot overcome the greater struggles that we have to deal with."

Clayton worked for the National Urban League and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, where she became involved in King's work. She expressed anger that the black vote in the 2016 presidential election was so low, pointing to Vivian as an example of someone who got beaten while fighting for black voting rights.

"If you've ever seen the footage, you'll never sleep in again on Election Day," Clayton said.

Young said he believes the power of football helped desegregate the South, whether it was Alabama coach Bear Bryant adding black players for competitive purposes or Georgia running back Herschel Walker keeping his cool while the Bulldogs won a national title.

"If you had to choose really who had more impact on the desegregation of Georgia, Martin Luther King or Herschel Walker, Herschel would probably win because he made Georgia No. 1," Young said. "... That's the thing about Herschel. There was never an incident. He was totally polite, totally responsible for his actions, and he had a very difficult time coming up. All of us did."

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Alabama and Washington players listen to civil rights leaders speak. Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl

Young said sports today is again a leader in the global economy by trying to establish a world where the best rise to the top -- Australian punters flocking to America, foreign basketball players with heavy NBA and NCAA influence -- while bringing others with them.

"You all, whether you like it or not, we've made you leaders because football is kind of our religion," Young told the players. "But the team has gotten bigger now and many people are not ready for a world-wide league so they want to pick on people who are different. ... You're right in the middle of the changing world and you cannot escape it. The best thing to do is immerse yourself in it, learn and find a way into leadership."

Said Clayton: "We still have to continue to work. You want to make money, make more victories, make more games for yourself. Don't stop the flow of progress. Work as hard as you can so that everybody ought to be free. You boys -- excuse me, you men -- should have the freedom to choose any girl you want of your choice no matter the color she looks like."

In an interview afterward, Alabama defensive end Jonathan Allen said the discussion was the best bowl experience he's had in his four years.

"It makes you think given what's going on nowadays," Allen said. "It's something me and my teammates talk about some."

Washington safety Brandon Beaver said the Black Lives Matter question by his teammate Parson was important to ask of the civil rights activists.

"One thing I got out of today is make sure we plan," Beaver said. "They're kind of right. The whole Black Lives Matter is just kind of get up and go. If we get our plan out and move forward that way, we keep the progress going."

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Jon Solomon is CBS Sports's national college football writer. A former Alabama resident, he now lives in Maryland and also writes extensively on NCAA topics. Jon previously worked at The Birmingham News,... Full Bio

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