Gregg Popovich foreshadowed growing racial divide, voter suppression efforts during reflection of MLK’s legacy

Popovich discussed several issues prior to Spurs game last year on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich walks off the court after he was ejected during the first half of the team's NBA basketball game against the Los Angeles Lakers in San Antonio, Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2020. (AP Photo/Eric Gay) (Eric Gay, Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

SAN ANTONIO – Nearly a year ago, Gregg Popovich was asked to reflect on the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

And while the Spurs head coach lauded Dr. King’s greatness and accomplishments as a Civil Rights icon, he also gave a stark foreshadowing about a growing racial divide and fears of voter suppression that throughout the past year has mostly proven to be true.

“Now we worry because it seems like a lot of roll back, especially as we look at the race situation in our country,” Popovich said at the time.

Since Jan. 20, 2020, the country has undergone an immense amount of turmoil. A raging pandemic swept the globe, killing hundreds of thousands across the country, including more than 1,700 people in Bexar County.

The George Floyd murder spurned nationwide protests to end police brutality and systemic racism with many NBA players leading the way in their respective cities.

And for the past two months, political tensions have boiled over as President Donald Trump refused to accept the results of a fair election and made baseless claims over voter fraud.

Popovich, one of the most staunch opponents of Trump, was weary then of what he said was an “administration that basically abides by racist actions not just by word but by what they do.”

“Just look at the voting rights roll backs ever since the Supreme Court decision in 2013, and how they continue to try and fight to keep the vote down,” Popovich said a year ago. “It’s really sad and to think that all this time has gone by and it’s gone backwards. It has been depressing to me.”

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 expanded the 14th and 15th amendments by banning racial discrimination in voting practices. The act was a response to the barriers that prevented Black citizens and other minority groups from voting for nearly a century.

Before the Voting Rights Act passed, Dr. King and other Civil Rights icons, like John Lewis, led marches in Selma, Alabama to amplify the message of the importance of voter rights for people of all colors.

Selma was notorious for racial violence against civil and voting rights activists. The assault on voting rights marchers known as “Bloody Sunday” was instrumental in getting the act passed in 1965.

In retrospect, it makes sense that Popovich would strike a somber tone last year when discussing Dr. King and the racial divide in the US.

“Race is still the unanswered dilemma that everyone continues to ignore. Dr. King did not ignore it, and it’s a big fear now that we have a group in power that is very willing to ignore it. It’s not just with their words, but their actions prove it, and that is scary,” Popovich said.

“What I feel on a day like today is a little bit of melancholy. Obviously because of the way he met his demise, but when I think about this government rolling back so much of what he fought for and believed in, it’s really sad,” Popovich said.

Popovich was a cadet at the Air Force Academy when Dr. King was assassinated in 1968.

He told ESPN.com’s The Undefeated in 2018 that Dr. King became such an iconic figure “for his stances on Vietnam, social justice and the peaceful protests he led. But still, making people uncomfortable and realizing nothing was going to change unless action was taken. He wasn’t just a talker. To lose a person like that seemingly or accurately out of the blue was a little shocking.”

Fast forward more than 50 years and we are still fighting many of the same battles Dr. King fought when it comes to social justice, race and equal opportunities for all Americans.

“More than anything, he was about justice, he was about trying to make everything fairer for everybody,” Popovich said last year. “(It) doesn’t matter what your persuasion is in any way, shape or form. It is just about justice and he knew that was a long arc, but he stuck with it. He did it with class. He did it his way.”

READ MORE:

Front pages show the evolution of the MLK March in San Antonio

A look back at the extraordinary life of Martin Luther King Jr., in photos

‘Trump enjoyed it’: Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich blasts president, rioters after attack at US Capitol


About the Author:

RJ Marquez has been at KSAT since 2010. He's covered a variety of stories and events across the San Antonio area, and is the lead reporter for KSAT Explains. He also covers the Spurs for on-air and digital platforms. You can see RJ regularly on KSAT Explains and Good Morning San Antonio.