Since the announcement of your NFL deal, I have heard many of your fans attempting explanations for your partnership. Be patient. Chess versus checkers. Crabs in a bucket. He’s a billionaire and has to move differently. Wait and see.
For a long time, the “greatest rapper alive” has been an example of “actionable items” in the community. You’ve raised money for the families of Sean Bell and Trayvon Martin, you’ve donated tens of thousands of dollars to help bail out protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, and served as an executive producer on several documentaries about the criminal justice system.
Your body of work speaks for itself. I don’t believe you should be canceled, but we shouldn’t allow our adoration for someone to stifle our critique.
In 2017, you told an audience at a Miami concert, “I want y’all to understand when people are kneeling and putting their fists up in the air and doing what they’re doing, it’s not about the flag, it’s about justice. It’s about injustice. And that’s not a black or white thing, it’s a human issue.”
A year later, you rapped in “APES—“: “I said no to the Super Bowl: you need me, I don’t need you.”
Surprisingly, during a news conference while sitting next to Roger Goodell, you told a room of reporters “that we are past kneeling [and] it’s not about getting [Colin] Kaepernick a job.” Then you asked people in the room, “Do you know the issue? How about you, do you know the issue?”
As you asked the question, I noticed Goodell’s smile as he leaned back in his chair. I thought to myself, was this a prerequisite for Jay-Z to sit at the table with the NFL?
At that same meeting, the NFL announced that Roc Nation will help promote the NFL’s Inspire Change initiative, which will focus on education, economic development, police, community relations and criminal justice reform. In addition, Roc Nation will have a music series and clothing line, both collaborations with the NFL. Capitalism mixed with activism.
It appears as though you changed your entire message once the NFL deal happened. This looks bad, Jay-Z.
Here is the part that’s hard to swallow. It seems as though you are profiting from the very movement that Kaepernick started by partnering with the NFL, which to this day has whiteballed Kaepernick from the league.
Let’s be honest, if Kaepernick never took a knee and verbalized that he was protesting systemic racism and police brutality, this deal would never have been extended to you. That’s why NFL players Eric Reid and Kenny Stills are questioning you, because it’s not adding up.
Is this the chess versus checkers we keep hearing about? Maybe you are working within the system to further the movement that Kaepernick and Reid started. Or, is it simply you using Kaepernick as a ladder to step into a position that will financially benefit you, cloaked in activism but with the stench of capitalism?
I’m not advocating for anyone to be a broke activist. After all, I get paid an honorarium when I speak at universities, where I also sell my books. In fact, I interviewed family members of victims of police brutality for my book We Matter: Athletes and Activism, and I have been working closely with them ever since.
I asked Dr. Tiffany Crutcher, twin sister of Terence Crutcher, who was murdered by officer Betty Shelby in Tulsa, Oklahoma, if she wanted to weigh in on your NFL partnership. She shared the below quote:
“At the end of the day, I choose not to get distracted by things that won’t change the laws that give police officers permission to kill unarmed black and brown people in this country. We are in a state of emergency as it relates to being black in America and until the NFL publicly acknowledges that the reason why Kaepernick took a knee is valid, then hiring Jay-Z for their social justice campaign is a farce and I will continue to boycott the NFL.”
In early September, a new report was released saying $400,000 from the Songs of Seasons concerts, a partnership sponsored by Roc Nation and the NFL, are going to Chicago charities. That’s great, but this is not a charity issue, it’s a police brutality issue. If proceeds are going to specific organizations that fight for social justice, be transparent about the organizations.
So that cops like New York Police Department officer Daniel Pantaleo, who choked Eric Garner, an unarmed man, to death, isn’t fired but given prison time. Or Shelby, the cop who killed Crutcher, another unarmed man, doesn’t avoid prison time while conducting speaking tours profiting off Crutcher’s murder. Or Timothy Loehmann, the officer who murdered Tamir Rice, isn’t rehired by another police precinct.
That’s the issue, that’s why Kaepernick was taking a knee, and I am having difficulty seeing how your NFL merger is helping the issue.
And in January, I cringed when you made the comments that a single-parent household is to blame for people “losing their lives.”
I wondered, did Jay-Z just Bill Cosby pound cake speech us? I wanted to ask someone who was directly impacted by the issue of police brutality what his response was to your comments. I asked Eric Garner Jr. — son of Eric Garner. He said:
“I grew up loving Jay-Z . I have nothing but respect for him. What he said was hurtful. It sounded like he was making excuses for the police. My father wasn’t rude. Didn’t say, ‘F you.’ He said, ‘I can’t breathe’ 11 times. He didn’t just lose his life, they jumped him and murdered him for selling loosies, and five years later only one cop got fired. No jail time, but just fired. That’s not justice. This isn’t a problem you can just throw money at. Actual laws have to be changed so this doesn’t keep happening, and that’s why Kaepernick was taking a knee.”
I had the same reaction as Eric Garner Jr. Maybe you are trying to speak the language to people in a way that will get them on board? Perhaps helping them see that it’s not a “their problem” but an “our problem.” Chess versus checkers? Even if it is the latter, peddling a false narrative to gain support is a dangerous tactic. It feeds into the negative and inaccurate stereotypes of black fathers.
Jay-Z, you are in the upper echelon of revered entertainers who have the ear of the masses. You can’t use that power recklessly. You said it yourself: “Add that to the fact I went plat a bunch of times. Times that by my influence on pop culture. I’m supposed to be No. 1 on everybody’s list.”
I wanted to ask someone in law enforcement who I trusted, have worked with and support to weigh in on their perceived effectiveness of your NFL merger, so I asked Capt. Sonia Pruitt of the National Black Police Association, and she said:
“In the realm of social justice, it is important that our actions as activists have depth. While I respect the endeavors of selling clothing and entertainment from a capitalistic view, the reality is that what we need are the added voices of influential members of the community, such as entertainers and those in the athletic arena, to push for actual change. And funding should be funneled to those organizations whose messages, actions and results are strong and meaningful.”
Bottom line, this doesn’t look like chess versus checkers, this looks like Connect 4, you stacking your chips on top of the movement and connecting with the NFL for a straight line across capitalism. You won the game, but it definitely doesn’t equal social justice, not yet at least.
NEW YORK — The pairing of the NFL and rapper-businessman-activist Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter is surprising, but it actually makes tremendous sense for the buttoned-down league.
As part of a long-term agreement that will be announced during a news conference on Wednesday, Carter’s Roc Nation entertainment company will lead the NFL’s music and entertainment endeavors, including advising on the selection of artists for the Super Bowl halftime show, a production that has presented challenges for the league.
The NFL, which will greatly expand its entertainment footprint because of the deal, is still the same organization that has for years shut out onetime San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who protested during the 2016 season to draw attention to police brutality and systemic oppression. And Carter has been a vocal supporter of Kaepernick, who in February settled his collusion grievance against the league for an undisclosed amount.
Despite taking a public stance about Kaepernick that is at odds with the NFL’s position, Carter clearly views the alliance as an opportunity to potentially improve the league’s culture from within. Think of it as sort of a Nixon-goes-to-China moment. As for the NFL, well, joining forces with Carter is a gift that’s heaven-sent, says Harry Edwards.
In fact, Edwards, the legendary sports activist and professor emeritus of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, has only one question about the new partnership: What took NFL commissioner Roger Goodell so long?
“I don’t know why Roger didn’t make this move long before now,” Edwards said on the phone. “I’m surprised that it took Roger so long to say, ‘Hey, we can’t keep going through this every Super Bowl.’ He had to put an end to it.”
In Everything Is Love, Jay-Z’s surprise 2018 album with his superstar wife, Beyoncé, he rapped about declining to participate in the Super Bowl. On the track “APES—,” he says:
“I said no to the Super Bowl
You need me, I don’t need you
Every night we in the end zone
Tell the NFL we in stadiums too.”
In the run-up to Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta in February, many A-list entertainers declined to participate in the halftime show and boycotted the game altogether, largely because of the league’s perceived mistreatment of Kaepernick. Additionally, more than 100,000 people signed an online petition requesting that Maroon 5, the show’s eventual headliner, drop out of the performance.
Despite recent efforts to back players in championing social justice, the NFL still lacks credibility with many African Americans, even some who identify as being among the league’s fans. Credibility with black folk is not something Jay-Z lacks, Edwards said.
“To get someone with the awareness and the credibility, as well as the street cred — because let’s not forget that in this situation, that’s important, too — that Jay-Z has is exactly what Roger needs,” said Edwards, a longtime 49ers adviser who has been active at the intersections of race, sports and politics since the 1960s. “Jay-Z provides the cover the NFL needs for [some] entertainers to give it [the NFL] a chance again.
“It’s crystal clear that if Roger had not made this move, every event that the NFL tried to put on would be complicated by the political implications of entertainers not wanting to be part of a system that supports the likes of [Miami Dolphins owner Stephen] Ross and [Jerry] Jones of the Dallas Cowboys and others. Now the challenge for Jay-Z, what he has to ask himself, is, ‘How do I frame that entertainment module so that it reflects, even in an evolving fashion, the right side of history?’ ”
Not surprisingly, many Kaepernick supporters are angered by Jay-Z’s decision to embrace the NFL. On social media on Tuesday, Jay-Z was attacked, predictably, for being a sellout, including by Carolina Panthers defensive back Eric Reid, who had joined Kaepernick in his grievance against the NFL.
You & some others seem to misunderstand that we had no beef with the NFL until they started perpetuating the systemic oppression that we are fighting by blackballing Colin and then me. Nah I won’t quit playing but I will be a royal pain in the NFL’s a** for acting like they care https://t.co/bL6SMUkrQP
— Eric Reid (@E_Reid35) August 14, 2019
about people of color by forming numerous disingenuous partnerships to address social injustice while collectively blackballing Colin, the person who brought oppression and social injustice to the forefront of the NFL platform.
— Eric Reid (@E_Reid35) August 14, 2019
Regardless of whether the union of professional sports’ most powerful league and the entertainment impresario improves the NFL’s social justice efforts, some critics won’t forgive Jay-Z for apparently being insufficiently supportive of Kaepernick.
Jay-Z, however, can’t worry about that, Edwards said. He just has to do good work.
“The Super Bowl is Jay-Z’s program to script,” Edwards said. “And if Jay-Z is half as sharp as I believe him to be, he will figure a way to take the burden off of the league so that every year the NFL is not confronted with another question about whether anyone worthy of the halftime musical production of the Super Bowl will even want to participate.
“He’ll also figure out a way, artistically, to project the right message to we the people, because you can do a whole lot through art. Through art, you can express things that you can’t say with a bullhorn, but you can get the message through just as clearly. Jay-Z clearly has the intellectual capacity and the artistic chops to get that done.”
He has proved that by surprising us time and time again with other big moves. And for his latest project, Jay-Z will try to quarterback the NFL to a comeback.
Real recognize real. Former Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant knows a thing or two about showing out at AT&T Stadium, and he gave Errol Spence Jr. all the credit in the world after Spence took down Mikey Garcia on pay-per-view.
Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is the unofficial host of boxing’s biggest event of 2019, the pay-per-view matchup between Errol Spence Jr. and Mikey Garcia. Before the two undefeated fighters squared off, Jones talked about the bout, AT&T Stadium, his Cowboys, the Cleveland Browns trading for Odell Beckham Jr., and much more.
An interview with Michael Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College and one of Fortune magazine’s 2018 World Leaders
When Michael Sorrell agreed to a controversial decision to disband the football program at Paul Quinn College in 2007, he saw it as the only way to save the financially troubled historically black college. Located in a working-class African-American neighborhood in south Dallas, Paul Quinn was on the verge of shuttering unless Sorrell, a relative novice in higher education, somehow came up with a miracle.
Paul Quinn was founded in 1872 and was the first institution of higher learning for African-Americans west of the Mississippi River. But as enrollment plunged from 1,000 to 150 students and annual deficits soared to as high as $1 million a year a decade ago, the school devolved into an eyesore, with several buildings in disrepair while others sat vacant.
No one wanted to be the president of Paul Quinn, which is why Sorrell, a Dallas-based attorney with no experience in higher education, initially accepted the job on a 90-day contingency basis as the board of trustees searched for a full-time president. Sorrell, who was part of a group in negotiations to purchase the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies and name him team president, awaited his fate. When the deal to acquire the Grizzlies fell through, Sorrell became Paul Quinn’s permanent president.
His idea to terminate the football program and convert the field into the state-of-the-art WE Over Me Farm where students can work, and from which food is donated to the surrounding community and sold to area businesses for profit, was born out of Sorrell’s desperation and innovation. It worked because Sorrell convinced everyone, including himself, that it couldn’t fail.
Paul Quinn, which was once on the verge of bankruptcy and de-accreditation, has seen its enrollment increase to more than 550 students today, and the graduation rate for students enrolling in 2006 and 2009 improved from 1 percent to 13 percent. In August, the school broke ground on a 40,000-square-foot educational and residential building made possible with $7 million in donations — the school’s first new building in 40 years. Paul Quinn now operates at a profit and has received the most seven-figure gifts in school history while securing full accreditation from the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools.
“I took some criticism, but we couldn’t afford football,” Sorrell told The Undefeated. “The dominant reason for us terminating the football program was economic. But another reason was maybe there’s more than one way out of poverty for young black men. Maybe your mind will sustain your climb out of poverty more than your body.”
A lunch meeting with Dallas businessman and environmentalist Trammell S. Crow prompted Sorrell to reveal there wasn’t a single grocery store for miles to accommodate the community surrounding Paul Quinn. Crow inquired about the feasibility of an on-campus garden. Sorrell suggested the football field, which had been unused for two years.
“He said, ‘Can you do that?’ I said, ‘I’m the president,’ ” Sorrell said. “So he gave some money to turn 30 yards of the football field into a community garden. He also gave money so we could open up a community garden at the church across from the school.” Crow later connected Paul Quinn with Pepsi Co., which also contributed financially to the farm. In 2014, Crow provided the largest gift in school history, $4.4 million, and has become so influential that the new building will be named after him.
“We didn’t know anything about farming,” Sorrell said. “We were inexperienced, but we had righteous rage and we were unafraid to fail. True failure would have been never trying to improve the condition of people in this community, and we thought that was wrong.”
As of August, the WE Over Me Farm has grown more than 60,000 pounds of produce and features a 3,000-square-foot greenhouse. Some of the produce is consumed in the dining halls. It’s also sold to Dallas restaurants and grocery stores. The school’s largest customer, Legends Hospitality, serves AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys. In 2015, Paul Quinn hired a farm director who specializes in organic farming and opened a farmers market that brings together 10 to 12 vendors each week. Popular items include collards, mustard greens, cabbage, lettuce, carrots, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, garlic, okra, cucumbers, corn, peas, watermelon, cantaloupe, pumpkins and squash.
“It saved our school in one regard because it changed the narrative,” Sorrell said. “No longer were you going to talk about Paul Quinn from the perspective of a need institution that did not have what it needed and should be pitied. When you are in a crisis, you have to change the narrative, and that’s what it allowed us to do. It gave people a reason to look at us and see hope. It’s one thing for me to go around giving speeches about believing and hope and we’re going to accomplish things. It’s something entirely different to give people tangible proof of hope. And from that moment forward, we began to exceed people’s expectations.”
Speaking at the prestigious SXSW EDU Conference & Festival in March in Austin, Texas, Sorrell emphasized that what works at Paul Quinn won’t necessarily yield similar results at schools with greater resources. For instance, cutting football wasn’t the only way to go. But it was considered the best way among other options.
“When I was a young college president, I was stressed out,” said Sorrell, who was named one of Fortune magazine’s 2018 World Leaders, one of only two college presidents to receive the honor. “I had just turned 40. I was frustrated. I was in charge of a school that was failing and there was no guarantee this was going to work. I faced a very real possibility that Paul Quinn College could have survived Reconstruction, it could have survived Jim Crow but it couldn’t survive my presidency. That scared the daylights out of me. At Paul Quinn, people look at our students and dismiss them. Eighty to 90 percent of our students are Pell Grant-eligible. Our average ACT score is 17. So what? That’s just numbers on a page. Maybe the problem isn’t that you couldn’t learn. Maybe the problem is that people couldn’t teach you.
“There was no path forward for us simply doing what other schools did because they were doing it longer and better. That wasn’t going to work for us. We weren’t that type of institution. We didn’t have those type of resources. Our way forward was going to have to be something different. And that different for us was turning the institution around and saying if we were going to design a university for today’s students, what would that look like? If we were going to demand our place in higher education, how would we break down the doors? We were going to have to be less of a college and more of a movement.”
The WE Over Me Farm was only the beginning. In 2013, Paul Quinn experimented with an urban work college in which all students are required to work at jobs on campus and later off campus for potential employers. Students have $2,400 of their wages go toward their tuition and keep the rest. In 2017, Paul Quinn was designated by the U.S. Department of Education as the ninth federally recognized and the first historically black work college.
“What’s truly amazing about what Paul Quinn has become is this idea that we created our own system of higher education,” Sorrell said. “We lost 80 percent of our student population in my first two years. We’re now over 550. We’ve had to manage that growth because we didn’t have [sufficient] housing. There were no urban work colleges [before Paul Quinn]. That model did not exist. If you live on campus, all of our residential students have a job. They work an average of 15, 16 hours per week. They work on and off campus. They have work transcripts so they can show what they can do, and they have their academic transcripts to show what they learned. We also reduced tuition and fees and made it easier for students to graduate with less than $10,000 in student loan debt. We have taken aim at what we have felt are the most dominant issues of our day and are working to solve them.”
In July, Paul Quinn announced that the inaugural site of its urban work college network will be in Plano, a Dallas suburb. Thirty-three students will live in apartments the first year, and corporate sponsors will provide paid internships and classroom space.
“We want to open Paul Quinn global campuses and urban work colleges all over the world,” Sorrell said. “Plano was our expansion model. This is about identifying your competitive advantage. We’re in one of the strongest, most thriving business centers in the country. Why wouldn’t we craft a way that allowed us to take full advantage simply of what we have in our midst?
“The farm was just the tip of the iceberg. That gave people the first example of us being able to do things that people weren’t doing or hadn’t done. We’ll use what we have to serve our institution and the community we serve. We give away close to 15 percent of everything we grow. Our largest customer is the Dallas Cowboys because, you know, we still run a business here. But, quite candidly, the farm is wonderful, but the farm isn’t what makes us special.
“I’ll tell you what I tell everybody: We are just warming up,” Sorrell said. “We haven’t even taken our best stuff off the shelf yet. We’re not saying our way is the only way or the best way. We’re saying what we believe yields the best results for the community we serve.”
Quavo of the Migos kicked off his 27th birthday by giving back to children and fans at Berkmar High School in Norcross, Georgia, an area becoming known as “The Nawf.” The closed-to-the-public event was for teachers, faculty and students of Berkmar High School. Held on Easter Sunday, it started with an Easter egg hunt, face painting, contests and bounce houses before Team Huncho faced off against Team Julio in touch football. Coach 2 Chainz led Team Huncho with a stacked deck of hip-hop artists and athletes, from Quavo, Offset and 21 Savage to Alvin Kamara, Von Miller and Todd Gurley. Team Julio, coached by Julio Jones, had Ezekiel Elliott, Martellus Bennett, Jacquees and Josh Norman, among others. The back-and-forth game ended with an Elliott touchdown, as many games do, giving the win and bragging rights to Team Julio.
The Dallas Cowboys gave their fans a sense of pride in the 1990s. Wide receiver Michael Irvin and quarterback Troy Aikman were in their primes. There was one other big playmaker on the field: running back Emmitt Smith.
Smith was a record-holding machine, known for his footwork and his winning attitude. He helped lead the Cowboys to three Super Bowl wins over four seasons (1992-93 to 1995-96 seasons) and was named first-team All-Pro during that four-year period. He was league MVP in 1993 and followed that by earning MVP honors in the Cowboys’ 30-13 win over the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXVIII. He retired with a career total of 18,355 rushing yards and 164 rushing touchdowns, both NFL records. He’s also the all-time leader in rushing attempts with 4,409 and the only player to post three seasons with 19 or more touchdowns.
After football, Smith wanted to focus on business and his family, including his wife, Pat, and their children. In preparing for this time, he knew he needed a plan. He once wanted to be an architect, but he switched gears and is now a commercial real estate developer.
“I was preparing for life after football before I even got to become a Dallas Cowboy,” said Smith, 49 after speaking to parents and children at the 2018 Disney Dreamers Academy in early March. “Then when I became one, it became more apparent that I need to be prepared for it because the NFL is a league that stands for Not For Long, whether they fire you or whether you get hurt. My coach told me, ‘Diversify yourself. Learn new things. And be open to understanding what goes on.’ ”
Smith was the 17th pick of the 1990 NFL draft, going to the Dallas Cowboys, with whom he spent 13 seasons. The final two NFL seasons of his 226-game career were spent with the Arizona Cardinals.
He later returned to the University of Florida to complete his bachelor’s degree in public relations, graduating in 1996. “I promised my mom if I left school early, I’d come back and get my degree,” Smith told the University of Florida alumni magazine. “I wanted to get that done.”
Teaming with former Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach, he launched Smith/Cypress Partners LP in 2005. The company transforms small properties into retail establishments. In 2013, he founded Emmitt Smith Enterprises, an umbrella company that includes his real estate firm and a commercial construction company. He’s also co-founder of E Smith Legacy, a Baltimore-based company that specializes in commercial real estate development and investment management. In 2016, he and Ben Davis founded The Gents Place, a premium men’s grooming and lifestyle club, with locations in Chicago; Leawood, Kansas; and Dallas, Houston, Frisco and Southlake, Texas.
“When you get to the National Football League level, you are around so many billionaires and you’re seeing how they operate and what they’re doing. It becomes very intriguing,” Smith said. “I’ve always been a kid to say, ‘If they can do it, I can do it too. What do they know that I don’t know?’ Obviously they knew a lot, they prepared a lot. And they studied in these areas, whether it’s oil and gas, whether it’s real estate, whether it’s mergers and acquisitions, but whatever it may be, those skill sets can be learned.”
He also teamed up with his wife and family in their reality show Mrs. & Mr. Smith on the Oprah Winfrey Network. Pat Smith, a former Miss Virginia USA, is the founder and spokesperson of Treasure You, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting women in financial, emotional or spiritual need. The two also run the Pat & Emmitt Smith Charities, which creates educational experiences and enrichment opportunities for underserved children.
Smith believes in putting in the time to master one’s next step.
“Put in your 10,000 hours there, as much as you put your 10,000 hours in sports, to master that craft,” he said. “And even when you master it, there’s always something to learn. And so just trying to become the best that you can at whatever it is, is just part of the process. … Outside of that, you’re just standing on the sideline watching ships go by.”
Sports helped him get ready for a business career, he said. “That’s the good thing about sports, in my opinion. It prepares you for life if you look at it as a life lesson. Whether it’s pregame adjustments, in-game adjustments, halftime adjustments, postgame adjustments, life is full of adjustments. Life is not a straight road, it’s a winding curve. And behind every curve, there’s something else behind it you need to learn or need to overcome. And that’s not going to change for my life, or yours.”
In a recent interview with Dallas Mavericks forward Harrison Barnes for The Players’ Tribune, Smith said he’s interested in owning an NFL team. “I think the biggest challenge for achieving more diversity is that not enough African-Americans have the capital to own a team,” he told Barnes. “I think that some African-Americans obviously have knowledge about playing the game of football. Most NFL owners today have never really played the sport. They’ve done great in business; they know how to run a company. So maybe more athletes have to go out and show the world that we know how to run a company too.”
Smith says life is all about opportunities.
He served as a judge at the Miss Universe pageant in 2006. He surprised the world by taking home the Mirror Ball trophy for winning season three of Dancing with the Stars.
“You can be the smartest person, you can be the most gifted person, but if you’re never given the opportunity to get in the game to showcase your talent the way that it should be showcased … equal opportunity, that is … then you’re going to be discouraged. And you’re going to keep butting your head up against a wall that’s not ready to move.”
Legendary Dallas Cowboys running back Calvin Hill remembers how he came to understand what he was fighting for during the civil rights movement. He grew up outside Baltimore and was bused to a segregated elementary school before attending an elite private high school in the Bronx, New York, where he was one of only five black students.
“The day we marched on Washington” in 1963, Hill was 16. “There was such a spirit of people just hugging and joining hands and singing together, I thought segregation was going to end, you know, that day,” he recalled.
On Saturday, more than half a million people are expected to gather in downtown Washington, D.C., for the March for Our Lives anti-gun violence rally, and a great many of them will be young. The demonstration was conceived after last month’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of teenager-led protests that have gained high-profile friends, enemies and national attention. But this is not the first time the nation has witnessed the power of youth activism. This anti-gun violence movement mirrors a protest tradition that decades ago recognized the moral sway of children who put their bodies, and often their lives, on the frontlines of a changing nation.
“If you look at what the civil rights movement was, it wasn’t necessarily about blacks wanting to go to school with whites. It was about wanting to have equal resources and equal opportunities,” said Hill, 71, a consultant for player development for the Cowboys who lives with his wife, Janet, in Great Falls, Virginia. And that desire fueled a movement of African-Americans, including some who were very young, who filled the streets of the nation.
It’s an era that the four-time Pro Bowler and first Cowboy to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season (not to mention the father of former NBA All-Star Grant Hill) remembers well. He grew up with the signposts, totems, deprivations and dangers of Jim Crow segregation. Hill often visited relatives in South Carolina, and as a youngster he thought perhaps ginger ale flowed from “Whites Only” water fountains. One day, with his cousins as lookouts, he took a sip from one, then dashed around the corner.
When his cousins clamored to know what white water tasted like, Hill told them, “I think it tastes just like the water in the other fountain.” He remembers being struck, he says, “by the silliness of the whole thing.”
Later, as a seventh-grader who’d been bused to black schools, he attended a student council meeting at the local all-white high school and was stunned by the quality of the facilities. “They had a gym that looked like a movie theater with permanent seats. We had a gymnasium that became an auditorium when you put seats on the floor.” The white school’s library was three times as big, and it had air conditioners in the windows.
Hill attended the progressive Riverdale Country School in New York on scholarship for high school. The school invited Martin Luther King Jr. to speak, and husband-and-wife actors and activists Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee were friends of some of the parents. The month after the March on Washington, he joined fellow students in New York to protest the church bombing by white supremacists that killed four young African-American girls in Birmingham, Alabama. He also attended sit-ins and protests in Baltimore.
Civil rights leaders made a strategic decision to put young people front and center in the protests to put a visual emphasis, on television and in newspapers, on the evils of segregation, and to demonstrate the implications of civil rights for the future black youth and the soul of the country. The wave of students who answered the call added to the iconography of the movement:
In 1957, the National Guard and a snarling white mob blocked the entrance to Arkansas Central High School by the Little Rock Nine, the youngest of whom was 14.
In the 1963 Birmingham Children’s Crusade, dogs and hoses were turned on children, and the images of them standing up until they fell gained a global audience.
Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, was arrested as a 12-year-old in Birmingham and recalled that when King visited protesters in prison he told them, “What you do this day will have an impact on children yet unborn.”
Hill was the same age then as the new wave of protesters now converging on Washington, and he calls that need to change what you feel must be changed a natural inclination for those old enough for idealism and too young to be jaded. “To sin by silence when we should protest makes cowards out of men,” Hill said, quoting poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox.
He recalls visiting his grandfather when he was around 7 and, along with another cousin his age, going into a clothing and fabric store with another cousin who was 14. A white teenage girl struck up a conversation with Hill, and he told her she should talk to his teen cousin since “my cousin likes girls.” He then told the teen cousin he should talk to the white girl, since she liked boys. The 14-year-old “immediately got a look on his face and said, ‘Let’s go.’ And when we walked to my grandfather’s house, instead of going along the road, we walked through the woods,” Hill recalled. “And I couldn’t understand why he was doing that.” When they got to the house, he was berated by his aunt, who warned him never to do that again.
Hill thought about that incident when he saw the casket of Emmett Till at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. One of the Four Freedoms that President Franklin D. Roosevelt talked about was the “freedom from fear anywhere … in the world,” Hill said, and that’s part of what young people then and now are fighting for.
The civil rights movement was also filled with young white people who marched and, in some cases, died. The murders of white activists Andrew Goodman, 20, and Michael Schwerner, 24, of New York City, along with black activist James Chaney, 21, caused a national furor. And in the current protest moment, the white activists have gotten younger and have sought to strengthen ties with young black protesters from communities victimized by gun violence. Hill sees their voices as a hopeful sign.
“You see the courage of so many people who are jumping out there instead of just sitting back not saying anything,” he said. “You see it with the young kids in Florida, in the civil rights movement and the anti-war demonstration. You’ve seen it in Black Lives Matter.”
The former football great and civil rights veteran calls all “these movements an effort to move towards the ideals of a more perfect union.” Older people become resigned to the status quo, but it’s the young people who say, “ ‘Hey, this is an issue, and we’re not going to stand for it anymore.’ ”
Many will marvel Saturday when the eyes of the nation turn to the teenage activists who insist against the odds that they can change the world. But among African-Americans, not only has the idea that a child shall lead the way always been the case, in some of our darkest moments, it’s been an article of faith.