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story.lead_photo.caption Fans sit in the stands in Montgomery, Ala., as Austin Peay hosts the University of Central Arkansas for an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Aug. 29, 2020. (The Montgomery Advertiser via AP / Jake Crandall )

In 1956, Lillian Blakey protested alongside Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a civil-rights movement against segregated seating.

Saturday, 64 years later, Blakey’s grandson found himself in a similar position.

With help from a few teammates and coaches, University of Central Arkansas senior Dwight Blakey organized his own social justice statement in Montgomery, Ala., responding to the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis.

On national television, he and his teammates took the Cramton Bowl field locked arm-in-arm, alternating between black and white players and then, right before kickoff in the game against Austin Peay, every player, coach and staff member held a single fist in the air.

“It was way bigger for me,” said Blakey, a wide receiver for the Bears. “Doing what we did, it meant the most to me because that’s history shown and history made all at the same time.”

Photo by Steven East / University of Central Arkansas courtesy photo
Central Arkansas' Dwight Blakey (6) is tackled by Cameron Miller of Austin Peay during their game Saturday, Aug. 29, 2020, at Montgomery, Ala.

On Friday night, in the Montgomery Embassy Suites conference room, Blakey thought of the idea. He and the three other football members of UCA’s social justice committee — senior wide receiver Tobias Enlow, senior defensive back Leandre Rucks and junior quarterback Breylin Smith — met with head coach Nathan Brown to discuss what type of statement they wanted to make.

In the wake of NBA players boycotting the playoffs on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, UCA players wanted to make their voices heard in the first college football game of the season. And there was no better place to do so than on ESPN Saturday night in Montgomery.

“I think it was a very powerful moment. Maybe one of the cooler moments I’ve had in my coaching career,” Brown said. “Who would have thought eight, nine months ago when Dr. [Brad] Teague got called about this FCS Kickoff game here in Montgomery, Ala., that we’d be in the situation that we are as a country. It’s no secret that things work in mysterious ways, and I think we were placed here for a reason. We are placed in the middle of the civil-rights movement.

“You want to push the needle? You want an opportunity to have a platform? What better place to do it than Montgomery, Alabama.”

The players never considered boycotting Saturday’s game, despite boycotts by teams in the National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball, National Hockey League and Major League Soccer. On Thursday morning, after the NBA player strike that shook the sports world, athletic director Brad Teague wondered if his or Austin Peay’s athletes were considering not playing Saturday.

But that wasn’t the case. They knew the type of stage they were going to be on.

“I felt if we would have done that, it would have taken our microphone away. We wouldn’t have had a voice,” Rucks said. “We knew that we were on a national platform and we wanted people to know that we were standing with them. We basically wanted to use ESPN to push that motive. And had done a lot of things throughout the summer kind of planning and talking about something like this.”

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