Last week Virginia Tech hosted two iconic figures who have become famous and been vilified for their willingness to use sports-related platforms to advocate for social justice.

World record-setting runner and educator Thomas “Tommie” Smith used his moment on the gold-medal stand during the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City to raise a black-gloved fist for Black Power amid a politically tumultuous year.

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In 2017, broadcast journalist and former ESPN host Jemele Hill’s Twitter comments on the practice of NFL players kneeling during the national anthem and calling President Donald Trump a white supremacist likewise resulted in a political firestorm that led to her temporary suspension but also increased her popularity.

Smith and Hill discussed the responsibilities and risks in using one’s platform for social justice during a two-hour conversation on Jan. 31 in Moss Arts Center as part of Virginia Tech’s 2019 Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration.

“I want to use my platform to tell our stories in different ways,” Hill said. “If the lead sentence on my obituary is, ‘She once tweeted [that] Donald Trump was a white supremacist,’ I’m going to be very disappointed in myself. There’s so much that has to come after that. It’s just a matter for me of using this platform to tell our stories, because that’s the one thing I’m hopeful and inspired by.”

Smith said athletes “have a responsibility to speak, and not just speak when spoken to, but speak when there’s a reason to be heard.

“Conversation can arouse a feeling of some type of forward momentum,” Smith said. “It’s a society of change, a society of social change. You’re not going to be everybody’s buddy when you know there’s a reason for stagnation happening.”

Smith and fellow runner John Carlos both began their road to the Olympics at San Jose State University, where they participated in the Olympic Project for Human Rights, which protested racial segregation. At the 1968 Summer Olympics, Smith won the gold medal in the the 200-meter sprint finals. Carlos won the bronze. In the medal award ceremony, both bowed their heads and raised one black-gloved fist in the air in a Black Power salute.

Smith went on to a long career in education as a high school teacher and college professor.

“It’s very simple,” Smith said, summing up his mission. “Education. Motivation. Conversation.”

Tommie Smith
Tommie Smith

Smith, 75, has retired from teaching but continues to travel the world and makes about 50 speeches a year.

“I’m going to do it until the day I die,” Smith said. “On my casket it’s going to say: education.”

Hill, meanwhile, is still on the front end of her career. She joined ESPN in 2006 and became co-anchor of the network’s flagship SportsCenter show in 2017. After her tweets later that year, she was suspended for two weeks, and ESPN issued a statement that her tweets “do not represent the position of ESPN.” Hill left ESPN to write for the Atlantic in 2018 and is launching a new podcast called “Unbothered” in March.

Hill said Black athletes through history, whether Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, or Bill Russell, have consistently faced pushback when they expressed political opinions.

“It’s just the Black experience,” Hill said. “Whenever we achieve or step outside certain boundaries, the mentality is, ‘Don’t you have enough? Isn’t that enough?’ Black athletes have been told that.”

Jemele Hill
Jemele Hill

Ellington Graves, the director of Virginia Tech’s Africana Studies Program, an InclusiveVT Faculty Fellow in the Office for Inclusion and Diversity, senior instructor in the Department of Sociology in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, and the moderator for the conversation, asked whether sports is well-suited for a conversation about social justice.

“I find sports is built for it,” Hill replied. “Today [Jan. 31] is the 100th birthday of Jackie Robinson, who integrated Major League Baseball in 1947. That was almost 20 years before the civil rights movement. A lot of times sports has been ahead of society because it is a performance-based field. Black athletes are able to gain acceptance and leverage quicker and much more direct than Black people in other parts of society.”

The connecting power of sports, Hill said, makes it a “unique and special platform” for free speech.

“We don’t do a lot together as a society,” she said. “We don’t eat together. We don’t pray together. But we do watch sports together.”

King’s legacy emerged at moments throughout the evening, but especially memorably when Hill asked Smith about the moment he raised his fist at the Olympics. Surely he knew the risk that came with making a political statement on the international stage.

“When you decided to raise your fist, had you already prepared for the worst-case scenario?” Hill asked.

“Death, I would think that is,” Smith said.

“So you were willing to die,” Hill responded. “So he already knew the cost.”

That prompted Graves to muse about King’s path into civil rights activism. King moved to Birmingham out of seminary to lead a church, not to become the face of civil rights protest. But when his congregation sought that, King followed the call to service and embraced it.

“The things that he [King] had gone through at his daddy’s knee — sitting in a seminary classroom, attending Morehouse College, talking to his wife — those things collectively prepared him to be ready to make the sacrifice he eventually made,” Graves said. “By the time you get to him being in Memphis, Tennessee, the night before he was shot on the balcony at the Lorraine Motel, that man said, ‘I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you, but I’ve seen it.’ He was prepared. No one had to take him by the hand and say, ‘This might happen to you.’ He was prepared by his life and by taking a position where he committed himself to caring about the welfare of his people and doing what was necessary to see to it they were better off than before he started.”

At the close of the night, Yolanda Avent, senior director of Virginia Tech’s Cultural and Community Centers, offered four takeaways from the evening: “Interrupt silence. Be accountable. Educate yourself first and ask questions later. Do the work.”

Virginia Tech’s 2019 Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration was sponsored by the Office for Inclusion and Diversity, Student Affairs, Athletics Department, Human Resources, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Pamplin College of Business, Division of Operations, College of Architecture and Urban Studies, College of Natural Resources and Environment, College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, College of Science, University Libraries, Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, College of Engineering, Moss Arts Center, and Department of Religion and Culture.

— Written by Mason Adams