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Colin Kaepernick, the former quarterback famous for his on-field protests against racism and police brutality, on Thursday accepted the W.E.B. DuBois Medal from the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University.
Kaepernick followed seven other recipients, including the comedian Dave Chappelle and the artist Kahinde Wiley, who painted President Obama's official portrait. Kaepernick was the capstone in a ceremony that repeatedly returned to the themes of protest and dissent.
Cornel West introduced Kaepernick in a rousing speech to a packed Sanders Theatre in Cambridge. West praised the athlete’s integrity and courage. “He was not simply content with being successful, he wanted to be great,” West said.
Kaepernick requested that no photos, videos or audio recordings be taken during his remarks.
When he took the podium for his acceptance speech, Kaepernick expressed gratitude. “Thank you, I’m not quite sure what to say after that,” he said, adding that after listening to the other recipients speak, he had decided to discard his prepared remarks.
Instead, he told a story about visiting a high school football team in Oakland, California. “One of these brothers says, ‘We don't get to eat at home, so we're going to eat on the field,’ ” Kaepernick recalled. The remark, he said, stayed with him. "It's our responsibility ... to uplift them, to empower them. Because if we don't, we become complicit in the problem."
Kaepernick concluded his speech on a note of optimism. “Love is at the root of our resistance,” he said. “It will fortify everything we do."
Kaepernick, a former quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, gained widespread attention in 2016 when he began kneeling during pregame national anthems to protest racial injustice and police violence against African-Americans. His gesture inspired a wave of similar protests across the league and provoked a bitter rebuke from President Trump, who urged his supporters to boycott the NFL.
Kaepernick left the 49ers in 2017 and has not been signed by another team. In November 2017 he filed a grievance against NFL owners, accusing them of retaliation. Last month, he was revealed as the face of the new Nike campaign.
The W.E.B. DuBois Medal is awarded every year to individuals distinguished in “their contributions to African and African American culture and the life of the mind.”
Kaepernick was one of eight medal recipients. The others were Chapelle, Wiley, the lawyer and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative Bryan Stevenson, the art collector Pamela Joyner, the president of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Shirley Ann Jackson and the former chief executive of American Express Kenneth I. Chenault.
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