ACTIVHISTorian Archive: Toni Smith, 2002-2003

In 2003, I was stunned to see this photo in the Arizona Republic, its ragged edges and tape still visible when I later scanned it so I could always have it to remind me what courage looks like.

Toni Smith, forward for the tiny Division III Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York, took a stand during her senior year’s basketball season. A year after 9/11, as the Iraq war became inevitable but long before Twitter and even Facebook, Toni Smith got into “good trouble,” as Rep. John Lewis has long suggested we do.

In the midst of Covid, we have witnessed thousands of masked protesters taking to the streets in response to the murder of George Floyd and so many others. We have witnessed them taking a knee before lines of militarized police. We have witnessed the players in the WNBA don uniforms and play on courts emblazoned with Breonna Taylor’s name, yet the NBA gets the press. But as Toni Smith said in 2018, “basically [in] every movement for social justice in this country’s history, black women have been on the front lines. . . . they were there, [but] how are we telling this story in a way that is not encompassing black women?” Toni Smith serves as a reminder that women’s—especially young women’s—actions often get missed in the telling of the story, the history. Yet they matter. Smith didn’t have a scholarship, wasn’t Division I, and few noticed her 90-degree turn that season. Until they did.

In August of 2016, journalist Dave Zirin of The Nation reflected on the impact of Smith’s actions, stating that “In those relatively primitive internet days, the story still managed to go viral and the outrage directed at Toni Smith was volcanic. The webpage of the liberal arts college had 2 million hits. Threats of violence were sent to the school and were palpable in the stands.”

After seeing the photo and reading about Toni, I emailed the college president, Richard Berman, acknowledging Smith’s bravery and what it said about his college and its work. I hoped he might pass along my support to this young student athlete, who was not unlike some that I’ve had in my classroom.

Smith said in 2003, “A lot of people blindly stand up and salute the flag, but I feel that blindly facing the flag hurts more people. There are a lot of inequities in this country, and these are issues that needed to be acknowledged. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, and our priorities are elsewhere.” She added, “I’m from a mixed racial and ethnic background. My mom is Jewish, and my dad is Black, white and Cherokee. I was learning about the prison industrial complex and the wars against Native Americans…this flag represents the slaughter of our ancestors.”

When Smith finally gained notoriety, she had been turning away from the flag for months without notice. But then suddenly there were sell-out crowds in her college’s cinderblock gym. Some were chanting “We love Toni!” while others were calling her a disgrace and an insult to veterans since her protest coincided with the start of the Iraq war. As her team captain, Latasha Carlos told the New York Times, “We’ve been to a lot of places in the last few weeks and Toni has been taunted and people have said nasty things to her. I couldn’t have taken it. I probably would have cried. But Toni was poised and so composed. I’m so proud of her.”

In 2016, it was Zirin who connected Smith’s actions from 13 years prior with Colin Kaepernick taking a knee, bringing that long-ago moment into renewed visibility.

Zirin contacted Toni Smith (now Smith-Thompson), who was working in New York City for the American Civil Liberties Union. Her comments remain prescient as she noted that, “For years I have wondered how I would’ve weathered the backlash from my protest in the age of social media.”

She also Tweeted an open letter to Kaepernick in solidarity:

I’d like to think I knew back then that my protest would someday matter again. I hoped, without promise, that one day again the fight for justice would find its way back onto a court…or field. After all, why shouldn’t it? Oppression doesn’t happen out there somewhere, separate from our lives. It happens here and now, while we walk, work, learn, love, drive, live, and play. So then, protest must happen everywhere, too.

In 2018, Smith-Thompson appeared on the podcast, Burn it all down, which focuses on the nexus of athletes and activism, many episodes emphasizing women athletes and their efforts in creating social justice. The timing coincided with the NFL working to curtail players’ peaceful protests. In that interview, Smith-Thompson recalled the words of Manhattanville’s President Berman, specifically, him coming to her and saying “If anybody given you a problem, come to me.”

In that 2018 interview, Smith-Thompson also noted that “the pursuit of justice is just as important as getting there. None of us know what justice will look like when we get there, and when it comes, and how long it will be…Part of the success is just that we’re doing the work.”

My beat-up newspaper clipping continues to remind me why each act of protest against injustice matters. Something that drew my attention in 2003, and especially now in this color version, is the teammate holding her hand—the only other player with her head noticeably tilted downward and her eyes looking toward the floor.

Toni Smith-Thompson remains a touchstone for me—one in a long line of those who start “good trouble.”

Pamela Stewart is an historian and an editor for TRR.