When Emmitt Smith talks about race, people should listen
3 mins read

When Emmitt Smith talks about race, people should listen

Emmitt Smith is probably not the first athlete people associate with Black people’s American struggle. He wasn’t at the press conference with Lew [now known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar] Alcindor, Bill Russell, and Jim Brown in support of Muhammad Ali electing to not serve in the United States military after being drafted into the Vietnam War. The main reason for that is he was a year old when Ali’s boxing license was reinstated in 1970.

Smith made sure his voice for justice was heard loud and clear on social media earlier this week. When the University of Florida announced that it was doing away with its entire Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion department, he gave his alma mater and home state quite the scolding:

The NFL’s all-time leading rusher was born in Pensacola, Fla., on May 15, 1969 — 13 months after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the passing of the Fair Housing Act. While Smith was barely elementary-school aged in 1974, a racist incident that took place in Pensacola was written about in the New York Times.

Wendell Blackwell was shot and killed by an Escambia County Deputy. The authorities alleged that Blackwell had a pistol. However, Rev. H.K. Matthews claimed Blackwell was shot to death at a distance of three feet. At a 1975 protest Matthews led that demanded justice for Blackwell’s killing, he was arrested. Matthews was eventually levied a 60-day jail sentence at Lake Butler for “unlawful assembly,” and five years of hard labor. Matthews’ sentence was commuted after 63 days, and he was pardoned in 1980.

During the time when that killing was news, the New York Times printed a quote that a St. Petersburg Times reporter recorded from Escambia County Sergeant James Edison.

“You grab a club and hit a n*****. Now, I don’t want you to think I’m a racist, I like Black folks. In fact, I’d like to have two of them in my backyard for the dogs to play with. N****** are better than milkbones.”

Edison tried to deny those words until he was presented with the recording to his face. He would go on to offer his resignation. That is the world that Emmitt Smith was born into. He may not have been old enough for Blackwell to be a lifelong friend, but the tensions in the community were certainly palpable.

Smith would go onto set the NFL rushing record as an adult and largely did so with a smile on his face. Life has been great to him, and yet he felt that it was important to be highly critical of Jerry Jones’ stance that opposed Dallas Cowboys players kneeling during the national anthem. Now in 2024, Smith publicly expressed disappointment in his alma mater and home state for their opposition to DEI.

For some people, it is easy to ignore Smith, and for others, his statement confirms thoughts that were already in their heads. What everyone should take to heart is that a minister was jailed for exercising his First Amendment rights to protest what he believed was a racially motivated killing, in the place where the NFL’s 54-year-old all-time leading rusher was born and raised.

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