Many years ago, I spent some time with Jesse Jackson during one of his birthdays at his mother’s house in Greenville. The how and why is a totally separate story, but there was something that became etched in my mind during my several hours with the civil rights activist.
He talked about professional sports and how it helped bridge the racial gaps in the past half century – especially in the South. His premise was very true. Teams in Atlanta, Charlotte, Dallas and New Orleans helped bring people together who may not normally have talked to each other. Those teams created a sense of community pride in the wake of the turbulent 1960s. For most Americans, it’s hard to remember a time when pro sports weren’t in those cities or even the angst about moving to those Southern locales. Dallas was considered a rough town – a remnant of the Old West. Atlanta got its teams because it was considered not as racially broken apart as Birmingham. New Orleans was supposed to have an AFL team, but that fell apart because of a mostly forgotten battle over segregation at an All-Star game. The NFL eventually swooped in.
But pro sports teams could unify a region in a way college sports couldn’t. Not saying college sports doesn’t unify, but most states have two or three major college athletic programs that create friction. The idea was “Hey, black and whites may not agree on a lot of things, but they could root for a Michael Vick or a Dominque Wilkins or a Larry Johnson.” They also could come together to hate the New England Patriots. It wasn’t easy at first as old racial lines died hard, but change did happen.
Especially, in light of the battles over people kneeling or not kneeling at NFL games. Or the odd MLB game. Or the NBA champions not being invited to the White House. Pro sports ( and college to some extent) was a bandage on a festering injury deep inside America. We have seen that sports no longer unites people like it did a few years back.
In the long run, this may be a good thing. A great thing even. We, as a society, have the opportunity to move beyond the superficial bond that has held us loosely together. That common ground has gotten shaky at best. It’s time to get to know our neighbors beyond the laundry they root for. Ask them what they really think. Listen for real as they explain their hardships. Their concerns. Their joys.
This is not a new idea. Back in the 1990s, there was an initiative in Greenville that encouraged white people and black people to eat lunch together to actually get to know each other. Maybe, in the week that we get ready to do the whole Thanksgiving thing, it’s time to think about how we can come together to be a better Greenville and maybe grab lunch with each other again.