“Early morning April 4
Shot rings out in a Memphis sky”
– U2, Pride (In the Name of Love)
It’s spring on the West Coast, the cherry blossoms are out, tulips and daffodils have made their annual return adding a plethora of colours to the constant backdrop of green that folks in the Lower Mainland enjoy while the rest of Canada thaws out after another winter.
Spring means a lot of things to different people, for some it’s time knock the dust off the clubs or finally wash that green stuff off their siding. At the very least, it means that warmer temperatures are just around the corner and another football season is coming quickly.
For three senior members of the Lions coaching staff however, April 4 was also a day of reflection as it marks the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King in 1968. While Mark Washington, Khari Jones and Marcello Simmons were all born after the death of King, the legacy of both his life and his death remains an important a part of their lives.
“My dad worked in the White House as a photographer from 1963 to 1968,” reveals Washington. “He was working there when John F. Kennedy was killed in Dallas and then experienced the loss of King. To say it affected him would be an understatement. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to have been so close to those tragic events.”
“My parents were teenagers living in a pretty segregated area in Indiana just east of Chicago in 1968 when King was assassinated,” says Jones. “It was a very dark, frightening and dangerous period of time.”
“My mom was 18 in 1968,” says Simmons. “Growing up where she did in Texas it was a tense time as it has always been in the south. She went to a segregated high school and lived in a black neighborhood. It was obviously a very sad day in her community and she told me many people were in a state of disbelief following Martin Luther King’s death. She talked about the aura he had when he spoke and how folks would just stop, watch and listen when he appeared on television. My father served in Vietnam and they said all of those factors combined to make it an extremely volatile situation. The fear of violence was probably a close second to the sense of helplessness that their voice for equality had been taken away.”
Decades later, all three not only enjoyed standout professional careers in the CFL, but now proudly represent the only club in professional football with three coordinators of African-American descent.
“It did dawn on me the day we announced the staff,” notes Washington. “My first thought as Wally was assembling the staff was that we have some really outstanding coaches this season and then it kind of hit me that it was Khari, Marcello and myself that would be leading our respective units. I was proud of each of our accomplishments and proud to be part of this organization.”
The CFL has long been a league of diversity and progress among it’s players, coaches and executives and perhaps somewhat concerning is the contrast one can draw of 32 NFL teams where just two teams currently employ an African-American coordinator on offence and three head up the defence of their respective teams. More on the issue can be found in a recent ESPN story here.
“It’s still an issue down there,” says Jones. “As a black quarterback I encountered that kind thinking and when you have a sport where the ratio of black players is inversely proportional to the number of coaches, I believe it shows there is still a significant disparity as far as opportunities go.”
For Jones, the issue of race can still pop up and has since he married his college sweetheart Justine. For a married couple of mixed race it takes a special kind of relationship to endure the things that were occasionally said in the stands over the years or even delivered in the mail. Their time in Canada hasn’t exempted them from such behaviour either.
“I did get some things in the mail a number of years ago that were pretty nasty,” admits the CFL’s Outstanding Player from 2001. “My time in Canada has been wonderful and both my wife and I are immensely proud of our citizenship here, but people are people and borders don’t eliminate ignorance.”
From Washington D.C. to California to Texas, their home states are as diverse as their experiences growing up. Each has made a life from the sport they loved as children and all three find themselves in Canada observing things from the other side of the 49th parallel.
“I believe there has been progress in the U.S. even if in some cases it’s been incremental,” notes Simmons. “Social media has certainly brought some events to light that we may or may not have heard about with the speed we do now, but I don’t know if the frequency or root issues of these incidents have changed much. I attended a very diverse high school so I grew up with friends of many races and I’m grateful for that, but that’s not the case everywhere. We have a long way to go.”
“I love this country and I am also a proud American,” beams Washington “Canada has given me tremendous opportunities, but similar to the United States, I’m not so naive to believe that it is not without its own issues. We’re a progressive league in a progressive country but we still have an uphill climb to truly live by Martin Luther King’s words and work towards a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
Words to live by indeed.