The pain, power, and price of protest: On athletes & activism, part 1

8 mins read

Forty-five years and twenty-one days ago, my father sat embarrassed and afraid on his mother-in-law’s couch in Lafayette, La.

Paul John Shivers discovered he was blacklisted from playing as a professional athlete. Banned from gainful employment, he had to leave behind a promising career and navigate the rough waters of being marked as an angry, black, disobedient negro.

Said Shivers. “I was twenty-two years old. My mama dead. My daddy dead. My family was scattered up North. I had nobody, but my wife and my mother-in-law and God. People from my hometown thought I was stupid [to protest] because I had a contract to go pro. But sometimes, you see the wrong and you’ve got to stand up for right. And, it cost me.”

Shortly after joining the 1972 student protests at the historically black, Southern University A&M College, Shivers, an All-American linebacker on the school’s football team, was jailed for his participation.

Paul J. Shivers at his hearing at Southern University in 1972 following his arrest for the participation in student protests. Photo Credit: Southern University Yearbook 1973

In a domino effect, his family—consisting of a newlywed wife and infant son—were evicted from family housing. Before they were evicted, local police told my mother, Francine, that she had to leave their apartment immediately. So she had to carry her infant son in the middle of the night to seek shelter. She found it over a mile down the road at the Newman Center, a Catholic center that she and her husband were members.

Not long after, Shivers was expelled from school just a semester before graduating; and subsequently, blacklisted from any chances of playing in the National Football League (NFL), although, the New York Giants already drew up a contract.

To worsen matters, his newly minted family, including his 54-year-old mother-in-law, received death threats. The cowards told tales of bombing her house.

Both of his parents were dead. His family migrated from Mississippi to Illinois years before when his mother passed while he was in high school. As a result, his siblings were scattered amongst relatives who were already burdened.

With little support and a world of pressure, he did what his mother, Willie Mae Brown, taught him—he prayed for his family’s protection and safe passage.

Today, Shivers says that it was those prayers that saved him. Along with the frequently chanted rosary prayers with his wife and the invocations of his mother-in-law, Leona Washington, “they were God’s protection” he detailed in a sit down interview at his Los Angeles home over 5 a.m. coffee.

My grandmother, Ms. Washington, secretly joined the NAACP in 1937. Her father, John Fernest Jones was murdered for his acquittal for killing a white man in self defense. His body parts were found along the tracks in St. Martinville, Louisiana. Everyone knows white men did it.

Growing up with the racial tension around her father’s trial and death, Ms. Washington knew how ruthless the system could be against those who fought back. Even if the faces to defend the system were Black, as in the case of HBCU Administrators at Southern University. The university’s president and others worked in tandem with local law enforcement to intimidate and remove the group of organizers who led the multiple-day protests at Southern University.

Ms. Washington refused to move from her Lafayette home, regardless of the bomb threats. She became Shivers’ biggest support system when he could not find work. In turn, the last 14 years of her life, she ended up staying with her daughter who is my mother, Francine and son-in-law, Paul, in Los Angeles—passing in 2016 at the age of 97.

Paul knew his audacity to employ full citizenship, to protest, as it was written in the Constitution, positioned him as a threat. The series of events initiated Shivers into a fury within a nation conceived and prosperous from black labor, and dedicated to maintaining an insidious racial hierarchy. It was during these times that he understood how much this nation rendered him invisible.

Because he rejected its subcutaneous layers in which he was told to exist, he would pay dearly like many before. At the moment he realized the price, he could not articulate his feelings of frustration and despair. Like many black athletes who used their platforms to articulate a political stance, indeed he paid.

This is his story. The story of an athlete turned activist.

Paul J. Shivers at his Los Angeles home.

Click on page 2 for more of the story

1 Comment

  1. Kaia
    You write with a potent fury. Reminding us of the continuum of sports activism which frame your own life.
    Thank you , your father and unsung sports heroes, who risked it all. We pick up the baton from them and run with purpose in every step.

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