At the Black churches I attended as a child, ushers passed out hand fans to worshippers, especially in July and August when temperatures soared over 90 degrees in central Georgia.
My paternal grandmother kept a rhythm with her fan that swung with the humidity and emotion in the pews.
On these fans were often paintings of Jesus and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and advertisements from local funeral homes or insurance agencies. In my grandmother’s home, there was a painting of a blonde-blue eyed Jesus and another of King with the Kennedy brothers, John and Robert.
Many of the black homes I visited through my childhood from the late 1970s into the 80s had this picture of King and the Kennedy brothers. Lewis Grizzard, the late Southern humorist and Georgia native, had this realization on a reporting trip in 1981 to Herschel Walker’s home in Wrightsville, Georgia.
“Inside the house is the Herschel Walker trophy room,” Grizzard wrote. “Plaques cover the walls, trophies stand on every available surface.
“In the middle of it all, strangely, hangs a frame that surrounds the faces of Robert and John Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King.”
With my crayons, I wanted to sketch a drawing of Walker to add to this trio of slain icons. Football was my first love and Walker was my first sports hero.
In the fall of 1980, when I was in kindergarten, Walker appeared for the first time on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Big and lightning fast, he was the star freshman tailback on the University of Georgia football team. In the season opener against Tennessee, Walker announced his presence to the world by running over Tennessee’s Bill Bates for a touchdown.
By the time SI’s November 17, 1980 issue landed in my grandmother’s mailbox, Walker was a national sensation and arguably the most popular man in the state of Georgia, ultimately leading the Athens-based school that year to an undefeated season and a national championship.
Black and white Georgians could bond over their mutual admiration for Walker: only nine years since the football program had been integrated with five black players and 19 years since Hamilton Holmes and Charlayne Hunter desegregated the university in 1961.
Walker had attended a segregated school until he was eight-years-old. The all-Black high school in town had been too poor to field a football team.
It was at UGA in ‘61 that Robert Kennedy, then-the Attorney General, outlined the Kennedy administration’s civil rights policy. “We will not stand by and be aloof,” he told 1600 Georgians in the audience. “We will not be aloof. We will move.”
Since King first joined the Civil Rights movement during the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, he had been pleading with the conscience of the nation to take bold action against Jim Crow laws in the South. Sports would emerge as a major battlefield for this enduring conflict.
The King that was captured on those church fans was the man that helped gift Herschel Walker and packed football stadiums of black and white fans in former segregated cities: balm for my parent’s long memory of segregated schools and Whites Only signs.
Now most starters on SEC football teams are African-American. I can’t watch Alabama or Georgia play without considering that less than 50 years ago Blacks were still fighting to find acceptance on these rosters.
King isn’t personally responsible for every stride that Blacks have made in sports and society in the last 50 years. But Walker likely couldn’t have become my early hero without the charismatic leadership of Dr. King through the most sweeping changes in the country since the Civil War.
This nation is still healing from the wounds of slavery. The recent events in Ferguson, Missouri and Staton Island, N.Y. are reminders of those lingering scars, and proof of the continuing importance of the power of mass protests and demonstrations to redress racial injustice.
I never got around to sketching Herschel on my grandmother’s church fan with King and the Kennedy boys. I always imagined that I would have just one of King and Walker together to remind me of our shared Georgia heritage and the ties between sports and social progress. Instead, I just hold images of these great men in my head, along with the natural rhythms of grandma’s hands and the games held on Saturdays in the fall.