March is Women’s History Month. It follows Black History Month, which is celebrated throughout the month of February. Women’s history and Black history are indelibly American history, and by extension global history.
Over the past two centuries, athletes have been prominent change-agents of racial and social justice, with men such as Paul Robeson, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali and now LeBron James recognized as seminal and galvanizing forces.
In the male dominated American culture, women athletes have often been overlooked and overshadowed by men for their courage and commitment to fostering a more equitable and just society despite their long engagement in various causes. Entering the 2002-2003 women’s college basketball season, Toni Smith was an obscure figure on the national sports landscape starring for Division III Manhattanville College, a small, private, liberal arts school in Purchase, New York.
Smith’s relative anonymity was interrupted when she began a silent protest of what she perceived as systemic injustices in the United States’ political, social and economic structures, including the military industrial complex, as the administration of the President George W. Bush moved toward launching war against Iraq based on the false premise that Iraq possessed large stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction.
Smith, a senior, was derided with profanity, and angrily confronted at both home and away games by those opposed to her peaceful demonstrations. She explained her stance in an interview with The New York Times published on Febr. 26, 2003.
‘‘I never meant this to be a public statement,’’ said Smith, 21 at the time, who was raised on the Upper West Side of Manhattan by a white mother and Black father. ‘‘I did it for my own self-respect and conscience… I know the flag represents people who have died for this country and I support them. But the flag means different things to everyone.
‘‘A lot of people blindly stand up and salute the flag,” she expanded. “There are a lot of inequities in this country, and these are issues that needed to be acknowledged. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, and our priorities are elsewhere.’’
Nearly 20 years after Smith, who went on to become an organizer in the advocacy department of the New York Civil Liberties Union, athletes have stood at the forefront of activism against many of the same issues she challenged.
In 2019, Maya Moore, one the WNBA’s best players, stepped away from her sterling basketball career, in which she’s won four titles and a league MVP in 2014, to focus on criminal justice reform. Her primary interest was the case of Jonathan Irons, a man who at the age of 16 was convicted of burglary and assault with a deadly weapon in Missouri in 1998 and sentenced to 50 years in prison.
The conviction was overturned in March of 2020 and Irons was released on July 1, 2020. Two months later, Moore, who has known Irons since she was 18, publicly revealed she had married the 40-year-old Irons that summer. Moore has yet to state if and when she will resume her basketball career.
“It’s important for me to remember that, even though I won a lot, that’s not the most important thing about me,” said Moore, speaking virtually at the at Syracuse University’s 36th annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration this past Jan. 31. “The most important thing about me is who I’m becoming.”
It’s a journey of self-discovery that Fannie Lou Hammer, Charlotta Bass, Angela Davis and numerous other activist have undergone. These powerful women have been succeeded by a burgeoning sisterhood of young, fearless, unapologetic athletes.