Up Next

HBCU Education

Florida A&M football players and coaches at forefront of Tallahassee protests

‘We have no choice’ is the message they are taking to the streets

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The crises confronting students at historically Black colleges and universities – racial injustice, police brutality and the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic – have driven them to the streets to protest and push for voting in the November presidential election.

Florida A&M University students have already marched in city streets demanding change. As Nov. 3 approaches, Blake Simpson, a defensive back for the Rattlers, head coach Willie Simmons and the Rattlers team are planning more rallies.

Students, coaches, athletes and members of the Tallahassee, Florida, community emphasized one message in their first March for Justice on Aug. 29: “We have no choice.” Students from Florida State University and Tallahassee Community College joined the peaceful protest.

“I feel like being a Black man in America, seeing everything that’s going on in 2020, all the police brutality, I feel like it’s my job to have a march like this and to have our voices heard,” said Simpson, who helped organize the protest with his Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity brother Christian Miley.

Simpson, a native of Alpharetta, Georgia, vividly recalls why he wanted to organize marches. As he was watching ESPN and viewing all of the talk shows last summer, he saw athletes all over the world standing up and using their platforms for a greater purpose.

“If they’re speaking up, why can’t we?” said Simpson, deciding then that he had no choice but to stand against injustice in this country.

After the killing of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis in May, some protests in Atlanta became violent. Attending those protests helped Simpson see the right and wrong way to conduct them to ensure a safe space for protesting.

Simpson quickly started contacting teammates, fraternity brothers and coaches. After he told his coaches, Simmons helped Simpson contact the police, reserve parking and get the permits to hold the rally. His teammates and coaches decided to lead the way.

Simmons defined what it meant to him and his team.

“It means that our team decided we are not going to sit on sidelines and watch social injustices continue. We feel it’s important to make sure our voices are heard. We see a national push from athletes all across the world utilizing their voices, and I’ve been telling this football team that they have a voice and it’s important that they use it,” said Simmons. “I’m glad to see that Blake had the initiative and used his voice. He got the attention and support of his teammates and coaches.”

“I coach some of the biggest Black Americans in the country, and when you think about police brutality and you think about profiling, many times it’s guys that look like our football players, so it’s important we get the message out,” Simmons added.

Miley, a junior accounting student from Tampa, Florida, said it’s time for a call to action.

“I wanted to do it because I was tired of watching everything happen. We need positive voices out here, to speak and stand up for the cause. Watching everything happen in the world has beaten me down, it plays heavy on my mental,” Miley said.

Miley is a part of the United Activist Coalition at FAMU. He reached out to speakers who were passionate about the cause and used their voices at the first march. They plan to do the same in subsequent marches.

“Police look at me and probably don’t even know I’m a football player, so I make sure I know my rights,” said Isaiah Land, an outside linebacker from Atlanta. “I can’t even see myself carrying on with life without fighting. I don’t want my kids to grow up in this same world. We shouldn’t have to water ourselves down to be approved by others. Instead of waiting for our oppressors to change, we need to change for ourselves and build each other up.”

Tallahassee, Florida’s state capital, has a history of student-led marches. This generation of FAMU student leaders joins Brodes Hartley, former U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek and others who have led previous marches. Hartley helped lead the 1956 Tallahassee bus boycott.

Change won’t happen overnight, which is why Miley uses his social media platform to encourage voting. Miley believes education is a two-way street. He continues to educate himself while helping others use their voices for social change.

“I want to educate people and encourage them to vote. We can demand change whenever we want, but if we don’t properly drive the vehicle to change, our efforts will be in vain,” Miley said.

Voter registration forms were handed out at the August march, and some football players registered then.

The words so often repeated at the first march — “They want our rhythm but not our blues” and “No justice, no peace” — will continue to echo with Simpson, his teammates and coaches as part of FAMU’s legacy of activism.

Marissa Stubbs is a junior broadcast journalism scholar from St. Petersburg, Florida. She is the assistant sports editor for The Famuan, Florida A&M’s school newspaper, and a sports reporter for athletics.