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British women’s basketball team united for a social justice rally in university campus

UK senior KeKe McKinney said the idea was spawned weeks ago as players in professional sports leagues across the country took steps to protest police brutality.

Members of the University of Kentucky women’s basketball team, historically the most dominant conference in women's basketball, yesterday led an event called “A Journey To Equality: Social Justice March and Unity Fair” that was held on the school’s campus as part of the ongoing social justice movement that has grown in the wake of several high-profile incidents in which Black citizens have been killed by police officers.

Not as a coincidence, the event came two days after the UK women’s basketball team released a video expressing solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.

The rally began at William T. Young Library - on the campus of the University of Kentucky -where junior star Rhyne Howard gave a brief speech thanking the crowd for attending and Pastor Richard Gaines of Consolidated Baptist Church in Lexington led the group in a prayer.

Gaines said several members of the UK women’s team who are part of his congregation approached him about participating.

“And I was thrilled to do it,” Gaines said. “I’m a product of the ‘60s civil rights movement and everything up until now. So to see this generation of young people stepping up who realize there’s more at stake than just playing ball on a hardwood floor and using their voice for a great cause — I commend them”.

The crowd, which included players from multiple UK sports teams and staffs as well as students and other community members, marched from the library through campus while chanting slogans such as “We want equality” and “Black lives matter,” eventually stopping across the street from Memorial Coliseum at Wildcat Alumni Plaza, which was set up to host the unity fair.

UK senior KeKe McKinney, who was instrumental in organizing the event, said the idea was spawned weeks ago as players in professional sports leagues across the country took steps to protest police brutality.

“Everybody was sitting out practices and games and we decided to do the same,” McKinney said through Zoom. “So, we decided to skip out on one practice and we just came up with what we wanted to do. At first, it was just going to be a march, and then some of our teammates added on that we wanted to do more things that were hands-on … It came together and I’m so excited about how the results came out today, it was amazing,” added McKinney, the all-around athlete that can play multiple positions and really defend the post or the perimeter and now a vocal leader on the team in her rookie season.

The crowd for the march and unity fair included UK volleyball coach Craig Skinner, UK women’s soccer coach Ian Carry and UK women’s basketball assistant coaches Kyra Elzy and Niya Butts.

Nonetheless, at the unity fair, booths were set up with information about mental health awareness, the Black Lives Matter movement and voter registration resources. Members of the UK women’s basketball team interacted with the crowd and there was even a bit of coordinated dancing. Later, UK Police Department Chief of Police Joe Monroe participated in a question-and-answer session.

The Kentucky women's basketball team hosted a march for social justice across UK's campus. Image credit Jon Hale/Courier Journal

Owens said the interaction with Monroe made her feel much more comfortable about living on her new college campus.

“We felt like it was important to have a conversation … with the campus police because what we want to do is we want to be able to bring together the Black community and also police officers to reestablish the relationship and to gain trust,” Owens declared. “I feel like a lot of times people think that the Black Lives Matter movement is anti-police, and that’s not it at all … We wanted to show that we can work together, that was our goal.

“I think it was cool to be able to talk to him. He’s a cool guy just as a person, and hearing his answers to our questions …made me feel more comfortable being on campus to be quite honest with you.”

During Wednesday evening, Matthew Mitchell, American college basketball coach currently head coach for University of Kentucky women's basketball, posted on Twitter: “I could not be prouder of this team for all their hard work in organizing and planning this important event! I firmly stand behind them as they help lead the charge to end racism and inequality in our country!”

Moreover, McKinney and Olivia Owens, a transfer from Maryland, spoke to the crowd to begin the fair. McKinney and Chloe Abbott, who was a senior for the track and field team last season, then sang the Black national anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

Sophomore forward Dre’una Edwards recited a poem she wrote citing several of the incidents that have ignited the current social justice movement, such as the killing of Breonna Taylor by Louisville police before the crowd began to mingle and the music was played over the outdoor speaker system. Many participants wore “Black Lives Matter” shirts and everyone in the crowd appeared to be wearing masks in compliance with the anti-COVID-19 safety measures.

“Just having the support … was good,” McKinney said. “Everybody was positive; it was a good vibe overall. It was like a family cookout even though they were strangers. So the vibes there were all positive and I loved every second of it.”

Now, the team has not yet developed concrete plans for further social justice advocacy, but it appears ideas are churning.

“We’re not done as far as talking about social injustice. We’re far from done,” Owens said. “We have more things coming.”


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