Back in 1967, as a white gas station attendant put gas in my 1962 VW, he hid my gas cap in his shirt, told me I didn’t have one and tried to sell me my gas cap. That incident became known as the “gas cap incident” in the black power movement in Memphis. I had recently returned to Memphis, after my discharge from the Air Force. Having survived a tour in Vietnam, I was a proud American, and convinced I had earned the same rights as white people and could use the law to defend those rights. As such, I called the police on the thief. Rather than the thief going to jail, I was arrested and the white thief walked away laughing. Hence, I have spent the last 60 plus years of my life fighting for human rights for all people. Making my stand, I helped organize the “Invaders,” a black power group that was instrumental, helping the Memphis sanitation workers win their strike in 1968. A major result of becoming a black power activist, I became one of the last two people to meet with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in a strategy meeting, less than an hour before he was assassinated (4/41968).
I bring these facts up because of the controversy the World Tennis Association created with its ham-handed and punitive retribution against Naomi Osaka. Without speaking to her and only reading press reports, I know Naomi O never thought her decision to protect herself mentally would make her the mother of a movement. Consequently, her stand is the point of my introduction. Back in 1968, I was not trying to become a black power activist, in fact, I was opposed to black power, so I was thinking only about what was happening to me at the time.
Commensurately, I am convinced Naomi O was simply thinking about how to heal herself. She probably had no idea so many people were suffering the same oppression as she, but only feeling trapped by a system in which she had no control. Again, I believe, in trying to free herself, she gave voice to so many desperate souls, suffering in silence. That is how movements are born, not by hundreds or thousands, but individuals, crying out in desperation, because the world refuses to respond to their pain.
Although he did not survive his desperate cry “I can’t Breathe,” yet so many struggling for breath heard George Floyd’s forlorn appeal and deathly cry. Again, even though no one was able to ride to his rescue, like “knights in shining armor,” still millions around the world rose up to embrace his desperate plea. During those lonely, desperate 9 minutes and 16 seconds, I am sure, no thought of starting a movement entered his dark world, as he called out for his mother. But, a movement grew, as his struggle and pleas were pregnant with the budding gasp for freedom that millions of black men and women have and still utter, trapped in the same madness. Untold numbers around the world today, because of George Floyd’s painful death, are nurturing the orphan of his travails, trying to keep hope alive.
Naomi O, in giving vent to her frustrations, is the culmination of a process centuries in the making, which began with the first descendant of slavery to pick up a tennis racket, and once the first strolled onto a tennis court, the die was casted for one day this moment would arrive. I look back at Althea Gibson, hitting balls on the sidewalks of Harlem in the 1950s, she could only smile, and shrug off the torment that rang in her ears throughout her career. But no tennis fan can forget the debut of the Williams sister—Venus and Serena—who lit a fire of rages in the hearts of descendants of American slavery that burns even today in the hearts of millions, and burn even brighter still, whenever they walk onto the court.
Who can forget my most salient moment of Serena’s many stands against umpires’ lines call and a relentless press gallery, digging at her, trying to chip away at her confidence. Standing like granite at Indian Wells, during the height of the women’s movement, when none stood with her, was Serena’s finest hour. White tennis fans tried to drive her from the court with boos, while hoping to kill her promotional appeal, but this valiant devil-may-care, swashbuckling, lone riding “woman,” stood before the world, as no other, endearing herself to fans—black and white. A happy mom today, Serena reigns supreme, “Queen of her Royal Court.”
My intent here is not only to hail the birth of a movement, but to shed a little light in the dark corner of the American sport industry, which continues to pretend it is not drowning in systemic racism perpetuated by the Jerry Jones’ all white ownership world. White owners—NFL, NBA, MLB and others—collude to keep Blacks out of ownership. They use made-up fictitious categories in order to discriminate against descendants of American slavery. The latest example is the made-up theory of “race-norming,” which assumes Black players’ brains predisposes them to dementia, which white are not similarly subjected. The practice assumes Black players start with lower cognitive skills, which makes it almost impossible for Black players to justify injury claims and access awards from the settlement fund. However, when it benefits owners and organizations, as with the WTA press conference situation, whites claim descendants of slavery are the same as white people and must be treated as equals, and not given an advantage. I see the WTA, ostracizing Naomi O, as the NFL has exiled Colin Keapernick to Siberia, and circled their wagons to prevent Keapernick from ever returning to the NFL. United owners refuse to offer him a job; collusion led by Jerry Jones!!!! So presently I believe the WTA is plotting to make Naomi O the example of what happens to an “angry Black woman,” who dares to speak out!!!
White people readily dismiss any claim that slavery has long term impacts on slavery’s descendants, as though walking away from plantations, slaves left it all behind. Magically, the 400 years of torture, rape, lynching, oppression and other types of degradations were not passed on, as part of white people’s acculturation and continually expressed in their behavioral and psychological make-up. Accordingly, this decision began and ends with Naomi O. Her stand has given birth to a movement that cannot be recalled. Similar to Colin Keapernick kneeling spread throughout sports in solidarity WTA’s press conference practices will change.
But more importantly, I point an accusatory finger at the news media and its reporters, who are the real culprits in the “dirty little game.” I remember Martina Hingis’ interviews; they were not grilled as Serena. Reporters fond all over her, with “softball” questions, never asking anything that might chip her confidence; it was a love fest!!! Unlike the Barbecue skewering’s Serena endured. Beneath it all is the, not so subtle, attempt to show black players cannot handle the pressure of being on such a “big” stage. However, in actuality, the effort is to try and remind Black players of negative thoughts, and give their next opponent a psychological edge in their next match. This is what Naomi O is trying to protect herself against. Shame on the white media!!!!
John Burl Smith is a writer, black power advocate and community organizer who comes from Memphis but is based in Atlanta.