The photo of Martin Luther King Jr. put things in perspective for Browns wide receiver Andrew Hawkins.
Change can happen.
Hawkins and four other NFL players to meet with Congressional leaders in Washington to discuss ways of bridging the divide between police and minority communities. During the visit Tuesday, Hawkins, a longtime activist, was struck by an iconic image of King, the revered civil rights leader, hanging on a wall inside the Eisenhower Executive Building next to the White House.
“And it was the meeting that kind of prompted blacks being able to vote, which was a big deal,” Hawkins said Wednesday. “So to see that and just walking in those historic hallways and realizing all the history you’ve learned about, and you’re literally in the same space as them, it’s a surreal moment.”
Hawkins was part of a delegation of players headed by Detroit Lions wide receiver Anquan Boldin. They visited Capitol Hill to meet with lawmakers about what can be done to improve relations between law enforcement and African-Americans. The problem has plagued the nation for decades, inflamed by shootings in recent months that triggered protests and violence.
The group also included Browns quarterback Josh McCown, Lions safety Glover Quin and Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins, all selected by Boldin, who has been personally touched by the tragic death of a cousin killed by an off-duty police officer in Florida.
During their one-day visit, the players met with House Speaker Paul Ryan, Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Fla.), Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), Rep. Daniel Webster (R-Fla.) and members of the congressional black caucus.
The players and politicians shared stories and ideas in hopes of working toward a solution.
“These issues are tough,” McCown said. “It’s easy when things happen for everybody to run to one side or the other. We just feel if we can stand in the middle and help move things along, help bridge gaps as best we can, that’s us doing our part.”
Boldin, the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year in 2015 for his community service, organized the trip to raise awareness, stimulate communication and promote healing. It was planned long before the recent presidential election, but with racial tensions running high in its aftermath, Boldin believes the timing could be vital for positive change.
“Wherever you go, people are talking about it (racial issues),” Boldin said. “Now it’s time for action. What do we do next? What’s the next step? And that was my reason for going to Capitol Hill and to the White House. How can I help? If I can help, if I can lend my voice, if I can lend my platform, how can I help?
“We had a great dialogue. I’m feeling optimistic, but it’s definitely just the first step for me. This is not something that, oh, we went to Washington and took photos.”
McCown was the only white player to participate. The 37-year-old was teammates with Boldin in Arizona and the two are close friends. McCown has worked with Boldin on other projects and said when he was asked to be a part of his effort, “it was a no-brainer for me.”
Both McCown and Hawkins stressed communication and compassion as being at the crux of making things better.
“There’s hurt, and then there’s fear that follows, and anger, and people run to sides,” McCown said. “And you just want to understand everything as best as you can and then step in; and you want to be able to stand with both sides and say we want to understand and realize that these are tough times, but that we’re here for you. We want to empathize with those that are hurting, that are losing loved ones, but at the same time support law enforcement and their efforts to help better their relationships with communities.”
Hawkins, who felt headway was made during the meetings, has used his voice as a professional athlete to fight injustice before.
Before a game in 2014, he wore a black T-shirt onto the field over his No. 16 Browns jersey to protest the killing of Tamir Rice. The 12-year-old boy was shot by Cleveland police who believed the toy gun he was carrying was real. There also was the fatal shooting of John Crawford, a 22-year-old killed while holding a toy BB gun rifle inside a department store.
Hawkins credits that passion to his grandfather, Burrell Haselrig Sr., who spoke at two Republican National Conventions and inspired him.
“To leave things better for your children than what you have, and that’s the responsibility I have as a father,” he said. “I feel like a lot of that was instilled in me, to be able to grow up seeing that let me know that it doesn’t matter where I’m from or how minuscule people think I am to the equation, that I have the power to make a difference even a little bit or encourage somebody else who might have more of a power to make a difference.”