It has been five and a half years since former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick made headlines for taking a knee during the national anthem before a game against the San Diego Chargers to protest police brutality and racial inequity.
Since then, a lot has changed in America and in Kaepernick’s life. The United States has become more polarized, it elected Donald Trump as president and replaced him with Joe Biden, and mass social justice movements have ensued, sparked by the George Floyd murder in Minneapolis. And Kaepernick left football, although he is still entertaining thoughts of a comeback, throwing the ball around in April at the University of Michigan with this message for teams: “I can help you win games.”
Aside from keeping his arm fine-tuned, Kaepernick also has leveraged his status as a trailblazer to be a spokesperson and driver of change for racial justice as an author, creator of curriculum and a philanthropist who not only gave $1 million to more than three dozen groups to fight oppression but raised hundreds of thousands more through his connections.
Kaepernick’s relentless work—and the efforts of two other “Vanguards of Social Justice and the African-American Experience,” David Burton and David Talbert—are being recognized by Morgan State University at its spring commencement ceremonies this Saturday. All of them will receive honorary degrees from the Historically Black College and University.
President David Wilson said the three have been inspirational in their quest to continue the “Black narrative” while bringing public attention to it through many different lenses, including higher education.
“Leadership, Integrity, Innovation, Diversity, Excellence and Respect are more than just words that appear on the flags that adorn our campus, or words that we utter casually when reciting our core values, they represent the embodiment of who we are and what a Morgan graduate stands for,” Wilson said. “With this notion in mind, we intentionally sought a collection of individuals who truly embody these principles, and thankfully we have assembled a trio of diverse voices who have bravely stood—and kneeled—for the betterment and advancement of the voiceless, the marginalized and the disenfranchised.”
Kaepernick’s fall and rise
After leading the 49ers to the Super Bowl in 2012, Kaepernick played 12 games during his final season in 2016, still possessing elite running and leadership skills but facing questions about his ability to throw downfield. But it was his decision to kneel in those games and the subsequent explosion of outcries from those who disagreed with his stance that ultimately led NFL teams to back away from signing him as a free agent. None has taken a chance since, although some have said they’ve expressed interest, including Seahawks coach Pete Carroll in 2020 and Raiders owner Mark Davis this year.
Kaepernick didn’t let that stop him from keeping the topics of racial and social inequity front and center in America. Since those silent protests, the quarterback has become a very public activist while empowering marginalized communities. Through his Million Dollar Pledge, he helped get funding for Youth Services, Inc., in Philadelphia, Schools on Wheels in Los Angeles, Communities United by Police Reform in New York, and Mothers Against Police Brutality in Dallas, among others. He worked with a number of celebrities to make those happen, including Usher, Snoop Dogg, Serena Williams and Stephen Curry.
Perhaps his most prominent campaign has been founding the Know Your Rights Camp, which aims to “advance the liberation and well-being of Black and Brown communities through education, self-empowerment, mass-mobilization and the creation of new systems that elevate the next generation of change leaders.” It is based on a number of mottos that all lead with “You Have the Right To: Be Free, Be Loved, Be Courageous, Be Trusted,” and many more, including “Know Your Rights.”
He also has his own publishing arm called Kaepernick Publishing which has released several books since 2019, including one he edited on policing and prisons and The New York Times best-selling children’s book he wrote called I Color Myself Different. He also has an autobiography called Change the Game about his high school experiences that is coming next March. Perhaps the most intriguing is his Netflix-driven Colin in Black and White K-12 Curriculum with activities and learning lessons for kids.
Kaepernick also has won numerous awards, including GQ magazine’s “Citizen of the Year,” the NFL’s Len Eshmont Award, the Sports Illustrated Muhammad Ali Legacy Award, and the ACLU’s Eason Monroe Courageous Advocate Award. He will be receiving his Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Morgan.
The two other vanguards
Morgan State’s other vanguards also have made spectacular contributions to higher education and to the university.
Burton, who will receive a Doctor of Humane Letters degree, is the founder and CEO of the Diverse Manufacturing Supply Chain Alliance (DMSCA) and DMSCA Supplier Development Foundation. He is probably best known for being the lead proponent in the HBCUs winning more than $550 million in a settlement in the Coalition for Excellence and Equity in Maryland Higher Education vs. the State of Maryland case. Aside from his advisory board service at Morgan, he was also on President Barack Obama’s Small Business Advisory Council.
Talbert, a 1989 graduate of Morgan, is one of the most highly acclaimed playwrights and filmmakers in the nation. His many touring productions, including The Fabric of a Man, Love in the Nick of Tyme and the Netflix musical Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey have helped earned him 24 NAACP awards. He is still active in the university community as a guest lecturer.