Webster Speaks on Activism with Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersee
September 08, 2020
Would Jackie Joyner-Kersee Take a Knee? Talking Activism with an Olympic Great on Webster Speaks
Black athletes, especially those in the national spotlight, are committing body and voice to address racial injustices – in numbers never seen before. Olympic great Jackie Joyner-Kersee shared her perspective on “Black Athletes, Powerful Voices,” the Sept. 2 edition of Webster Speaks: Dialogues on RACE, EQUITY and INCLUSION.
“I’m glad the athletes are able to speak out in this regard,” Joyner-Kersee told show host Vincent C. Flewellen, Webster’s chief diversity officer. “There’s an awakening, there’s an awareness, and you’re seeing people from all walks of life coming together to really try to change systemic racism.”
Joyner-Kersee has been called the Greatest Female Athlete of All Time by Sports Illustrated for Women. She won three gold, one silver, and two bronze medals in the heptathlon and long jump over the course of four Olympic Games. In the years since, she has channeled her energy into philanthropy.
The Jackie Joyner-Kersee Foundation provides enrichment, educational support and resources for underserved families in her hometown of East St. Louis, Illinois. Recently, it has become a hub of online learning for hundreds of students whose parents are unable to stay at home during the day or who don’t have adequate internet access. “Empower young people and give them the tools so they can be successful,” said Joyner-Kersee.
While the foundation is Joyner-Kersee’s main outlet for activism, she applauds athletes who have taken a knee, donned a Black Lives Matter jersey, staged walkouts and engaged in other public protests. Every form of activism is a different path to the same goal, she said. “We have to continue to uplift one another, unite and come together and build stronger bridges, and pull others across the bridge with us.”
Would Jackie Joyner-Kersee herself take a knee? While she was initially hesitant to follow the lead of San Francisco 49ers (now free agent) quarterback Colin Kaepernick in 2014, Joyner-Kersee told Flewellen she has come to embrace the meaning behind the gesture. “I stand up for the American flag, but this is not about the American flag,” said Joyner-Kersee. “It’s about kneeling in unity and the fight against injustice, and I think I could take the knee to unite with everyone.”
She urges young athletes to be bold and not cave to those who are unsupportive of their efforts. “Empower yourself with knowledge and understand how we got into this position and why we’re still fighting,” advised Joyner-Kersee. “[Don’t] allow the words of someone who really doesn’t know anything about you outside of you kicking a ball or running a race or shooting a hoop [to] define you. You know what defines you. Continue to be out there and unite and let’s make change.”
Webster University President Julian Z. Schuster joined the show at the end, thanking Joyner-Kersee for being a role model to many across generations – including himself. Schuster agreed that the time has come for sports figures to speak out and be recognized as social justice leaders.
“As long as athletes are treated as laborers, as entertainment, they will have a limited outreach,” said Schuster. “ We – all of us – we need to enable the voices that are coming from sports to become … the voices of the role model.”
Webster Speaks Next Episode
Webster Speaks continues its conversations on race and social justice from 7-8 p.m. CDT on Sept. 16 with “Coming of Age in the Black Lives Matter Era,” a conversation with Suggs Scholars. This group of academically talented undergraduates of color are recipients of a scholarship awarded in the name of St. Louis American publisher Donald M. Suggs.