TUCSON, AZ - Tucson Urban League held it's annual Equal Opportunity Day awards dinner on Friday night at Loews Ventana Canyon.
The event featured basketball Hall of Famers Oscar Robertson and Wayne Embry and their wives Yvonne Robertson and Theresa Embry in a conversation on racial and social justice issues, moderated by Tucson "Man of the Year" Bob Elliott. Mrs. Robertson and Mrs. Embry participated in the historic 1965 march from Selma, Alabama, led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The Tucson Urban League honored award winners Maiola Coleman, recipient of the Equal Opportunity Day Award; Marie Ciphers, recipient of the Whitney Young Award; and the Coalition for African American Health and Wellness, recipient of the Henry Quinto Legacy Award.
"The Supreme Court decision to strike down the 1965 Voting Rights Act – which was a direct result of the Selma march – and recent incidents involving police and persons of color across the U.S. bring home to us very clearly that the gains we have made in the past 50 years are in constant danger," noted Deborah Embry, president and CEO of the Tuscon Urban League.
"We are honored that two legendary athletes who are known as much for their social activism as for their exploits on the basketball court, and their wives who were on the front lines of the civil rights struggle, agreed to share their experiences with us and their perspectives on the issues that we continue to face today."
As members of the East team in the 1964 NBA All-Star Game, Oscar Roberson and Wayne Embry took part in the brief strike by the two all-star teams that led to NBA owners recognizing the National Basketball Players Association as the official collective bargaining agent for NBA players. One year later, when he was elected President of the National Basketball Players Association, Robertson became the first African American president of any national sports or entertainment labor union.
Robertson, who went on to lead the legal battle that resulted in NBA players becoming the first professional athletes to achieve free agency in 1976, forever changing the balance of power in professional sports, considers that victory equal to anything he accomplished on the basketball court.
"Our wives were the true heroes," added Wayne Embry, who went on to become the first African American general manager and the first African American team president in all of professional sports. "Being the wife of a professional athlete is not easy to begin with, because it's a high-stress profession and we travel so much. Yvonne and Theresa ran our households, raised our children, and still found time to be very active participants in the fight for civil rights and social justice that was so much a part of life in the '60s. They were able to speak up where we could not and we were and are so very proud of them."
"The first word in free agency is 'free,'" he noted. "The campaign for free agency was not just about the money. Back in the '60s and '70s, no athlete could speak out about social issues without fear of reprisal. By eliminating the reserve clause, which bound a player to one team for life, we could finally gain the same rights as any other citizen would have under the Constitution. We also believed that any economic gains we might make as athletes would actually lead to a new era of growth and prosperity for everyone who worked in professional sports, and that turned out to be exactly what happened."
"I was grateful to be a participant in the Selma march," said Theresa Embry. "It changed my life completely. I had never been to the South and now I had a firsthand look at what conditions were really like. What I tried to do with my life was completely different from that point on. I was weary of all the crap we were going through and I knew I had to be involved in causes for equality. We hoped we could bring about change, and we did, but obviously it has not been permanent. We're still facing many of the same issues that we were 50 years ago."
"I had grown up in Montgomery, Alabama, before we moved north during World War II," recalled Yvonne Robertson, "so I had some idea of what conditions were like. But going back to Selma on that Sunday in March made it very real for me all over again. When we got there we saw people with guns in the airport control tower. We weren't that fearful during the march, because we had protection by Federal troops, but the scary part was when we had to get back to the airport. As you know, others who had been involved in the march paid for it later with their lives. It was truly a life-changing experience."