49ers Museum unveils new exhibit honoring sports icons who fought for social justice

The history of sports and social justice runs deep — athletes protesting, standing up, and using their platforms to inspire change. Sports figures in the Bay Area have often led the charge.

"It really just represents some history of the Bay Area," said Keena Turner, the San Francisco 49ers vice president and senior advisor to the general manager. "And that connection of sports and social justice."

Five stories from some of the Bay Area’s most prominent sports icons have been enshrined in the 49ers Museum at Levi’s Stadium. The new exhibit is called "The Long Game."

"'The Long Game’ means that we just can’t look at what prior generations did and rest on those laurels," said Dr. Damion Thomas from the National Museum of African American History and Culture and also one of the committee members who curated the exhibit. "Values change, ideas change, opportunities change, and every generation has their responsibility to leave the world better than they found it."

For nearly two years, a committee of leaders from sports, cultural and academic communities picked the stories and curated the exhibit. Leaders like sociologist and civil rights activist Dr. Harry Edwards.

Edwards wrote, "The San Francisco Bay Area has often been the backdrop of these stories. From the iconic Willie Mays in the 50s to the indelible mark Colin Kaepernick has left this 21st century, these stories are meant to revisit the past, reflect on progress, and inspire hope for tomorrow."

RELATED: Looking for a Brock Purdy jersey? You may be out of luck

As you enter the museum you’re greeted by the legendary Willie Mays. While his heroics on the field are well-documented, the exhibit tells the story of the racism and discrimination he faced when trying to buy a home in the city. His offer in 1957, was initially turned down because he was Black.

"What this exhibition does is provide opportunities to think about some of the challenges he faced but also put his experiences within a bigger social context," said Thomas.

The exhibit opens the aperture on sexism, housing, and racial discrimination. These stories include Willie Mays and housing discrimination in San Francisco, Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ silent protest on the Olympic podium, and Colin Kaepernick’s iconic protest that pushed the conversation about anti-Black racism, particularly police brutality, on a global scale.

"What he did, what he represented, the chances he took, what he laid on the line," said Turner about Kaepernick. "The message that he really brought to the nation, and the focus he brought to some real issues that needed to be talked about."

"These are not just questions from the past, these are questions that we’re wrestling with now," said Thomas. "Important that the entire exhibition allows us an opportunity to frame and understand Colin’s experience as part of The Long Game."

The opening of the 49ers' new exhibit coincides with the NFL’s Inspire Change initiative, which highlights the work of all 32 teams and their commitment to social justice. As part of the initiative, 49ers players paid a visit to San Quentin state prison, meeting with men who are incarcerated there, and their children for a discussion and holiday party.

The people behind the exhibit hope visitors not only acknowledge the struggle of the past but engage in solutions for the future.

"A reminder that society changes, but it just doesn’t happen because time passes, it happens because people took action, stood up, and made society confront these forms of injustices," said Thomas.

The exhibit opens to the public on Friday, December 23. The Long Game will house these stories and continue to evolve online here.