DURHAM — Along the course of an emotional speech not even three minutes in duration, Henry Coleman III’s voice trembled at times and choked up at others, while reading what he had written from the previous night about his perspective on the depths of the Black experience, now just three months past his 18th birthday.
“The tears, the pain, the uncertainty,” the new Duke men’s basketball player began Thursday afternoon. “The feeling of sorrow. It has turned into a feeling of numbness that I’ve yet to even comprehend.”
By the end, after his Blue Devils teammates had joined in behind him at the microphone, some of them placing their hands on his shoulders to lend more support, the anguish in Coleman’s words had been replaced by a resolute quality.
The freshman forward’s voice sounded with purpose as he asked the crowd around him to repeat “we will demand change,” the start of the finishing thought to his message.
“It wasn’t loud enough,” Coleman said then, firmly responding to the first reciting, prompting the ensuing chorus to rise and grow while following his lead. “We will demand change. We will demand justice. We will gain equality. And we will be great.”
Part sermon and part plea, that powerful scene offered one of the most impactful moments on an impassioned afternoon at Duke, where players from the school’s sports teams, coaches, including Mike Krzyzewski and David Cutcliffe, and athletics department staffers came together by the hundreds in peaceful protest of systemic racism and social injustice.
It became a Black Lives Matter conversation assembled on the Krzyzewskiville courtyard, the lawn area in the shadow of Cameron Indoor Stadium, where Duke students set up cities of tents during basketball season and camp out to score tickets for games.
Nolan Smith, the former Blue Devils standout and current director of men’s basketball operations, organized the rally. He said it happened quickly, born out of anger and sadness and frustration sparked by the police’s treatment of Jacob Blake, the Kenosha, Wis., man shot in the back while three of his children looked on, the latest violent episode to touch a national nerve in this summer of turmoil.
“I’ve had guns pulled on me, multiple times, and y’all all know me,” Smith said Thursday. “I ain’t no drug dealer. I ain’t no thug. But I’m Black. I’m Black. Can’t change that.”
Smith and men’s basketball team members wore Nike-sponsored Duke t-shirts with “Black Lives Matter” printed across the chest. Smith spoke through an unmistakable indicator of these extraordinary times, his mouth and cheeks covered by a face mask featuring logos representing the Blue Devils and Black Lives Matter.
“Systemic racism and social injustice is here,” Krzyzewski said. “In order to solve a problem, you have to acknowledge it. Today is for all of us to acknowledge this problem, to share our feelings.”
Men’s basketball player Mike Buckmire, once Zion Williamson’s favorite sidekick during packed postgame interview sessions, carried a piece of cardboard that read: “Am I Next?” Duke athletes from across a number of other sports in attendance held similar signs of their own during the event.
“This doesn’t just end today,” Smith said, enunciating the words for effect, “because understand this is not a moment, this is a movement.”
Coleman, glancing at the notes he keyed into his phone, poured out a moving speech. He talked of structural racism in this country past and present, while describing the pain that persists in his mother’s eyes and the hurt that continues to emanate from his father. Coleman alluded to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis for additional imagery.
“This country has had its knee on the neck of African-Americans for too long,” he said. “This country has put a dagger in our backs, and has yet to even acknowledge the dagger, let alone try to pull it out.”
Krzyzewski, the 73-year-old Hall of Famer and former U.S. men’s national team coach, spoke of strategies with which to take action. He said that after Thursday’s rally, Duke men’s and women’s basketball players who had yet to do so would be registering to vote.
“And then you vote with your heart,” Krzyzewski said. “I’m not telling you who to vote for, but if we don’t get the proper leadership at every level in our country, this is not going to go away. We can see the police brutality, but what you don’t see are the amount of educational opportunities that are deprived young Black kids, health and welfare opportunities, economic opportunities. These things can only be changed with proper leadership and organization. And so the first step in that is for all of us to vote.
“I’m proud of you for coming out. Let’s find a way to win. This thing can be won, and your generation is the generation that’s going to do it. I grew up a long time ago in the (19)60s, I thought it was heading in the right direction, damn, I was wrong. I want to be right. I want to be on your team, and I want this systemic racism and social injustice to be defeated.”
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