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On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, sporting events and tournaments across the country will take place, many under the moniker of MLK Day. A lot of these contests are played without a thought about the significance of the holiday, treated just like any other day.
But in Pensacola, area coaches have not forgotten about the message that Martin Luther King Jr. devoted his lifetime towards spreading, and the privilege it is to play on a day with that special meaning.
As local teams get set to take to the hardwood on Monday, they'll do it with a purpose. With boys and girls of all different races competing against one another and fans of the same mixture unifying through sports, MLK's vision will be realized thanks to the universal language of athletics.
With the West Florida High girls basketball team hosting the MLK Day Showcase, five area teams will be playing holiday games. Jaguars head coach Ieasha Stallworth-Ridgeway will be taking the competition in perspective. While its a regular game that'll count towards their record, it's just secondary to having her girls understand the honor it is to uphold MLK's image.
"I don't look at it like as a privilege, I consider it an honor," Stallworth-Ridgeway said. "It is imperative that today's youth always remember Dr. King and his fight for racial equality and unity among all people, and his desire to do everything peacefully as a testament to his notable, 'I Have a Dream' speech."
As not to forget the legendary rhetoric, recall this powerful moment from Dr. King, who envisioned, "little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers."
Though there is always work to still be done in this timeless battle, sports offer us a glimpse of what MLK wanted for people across the globe. Togetherness, love and compassion in a hate-free world.
"I see his dream when I look at the makeup of sports teams across the world. Sports is one of the many activities that will allow you to look from the stands and see the diversity of the participants, while seeing Dr. Kings dream," Stallworth-Ridgeway said. "The cheers from the crowd, the smiles, the unity, the high-fives of strangers who could care less about race, education, religion, or a political views. We are living his dream."
And with MLK Day events serving as a good time to remind younger athletes of all they're accomplishing by Dr. King's wish, Stallworth-Ridgeway has been doing it all season. She wants her girls to understand their role in continuing this progress outside of the sports world.
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"I remind my girls often that we are on the shoulders of the fight and we must continue the charge," Stallworth-Ridgeway said. "Make friends with new people who don't look like them, respect individual differences and views, and embrace the power we have within us to be the elements of change in our respective generations."
Elsewhere, the Booker T. Washington boys basketball team is in Jacksonville for an MLK Day tournament of its own. Head coach Dwayne Louis will be looking to move the Wildcats' stellar season along with a win, but he'll also be remembering Dr. King on this influential day.
"The sacrifices of a man like that, to make sure we have the freedoms and the liberties to do what we enjoy doing, I’m humbled by that," Louis said. "That’s a man that sacrificed his life and his career just so I could be a head coach or in a public setting."
Without MLK's progressive work across the country, these sporting events may not look quite the same. But because of diversity and inclusion, sports are better for it.
"African-American males weren’t looked at as educators, that was just unheard of," Louis said. "So to be in the position to be an educator, a coach and a mentor, I’m humbled by that. And to be able to play on a holiday like that, I’m thankful.”
So as fans pack the gyms and players prepare for tip-off, take a look around and be grateful for the sights. Without the acceptance and harmony between the people of the Pensacola area, things wouldn't be nearly the same.
The successful sports scene in town is a culmination of diversity, but when the day comes to an end, don't throw the evolution to the side.
"Do we have more work to do across the board to continue to make the big pieces of his dream a reality? Of course we do," Stallworth-Ridgeway said. "In the meantime, we will embrace the realities of his dream as they come and today, we celebrate unity in sports."
Lucas Semb can be reached at Lsemb@pensacol.gannett.com or 850-281-7414. Follow him on Twitter at @Lucas_Semb for stories and various Pensacola area score updates.
PNJ sports reporter Patrick Bernadeau contributed to this story.
This article originally appeared on Pensacola News Journal: MLK Day sporting events used to remember his influential message