Archdeacon: Miami to honor Wayne and Terri Embry for a life’s work

As was still the practice back in 1965, NBA players roomed together on the road.

One late March afternoon that season, Cincinnati Royals center Wayne Embry was, like always, sharing his Philadelphia hotel quarters with Oscar Robertson as they awaited their playoff game with the Wilt Chamberlin-led 76ers.

“It was about 4 o’clock and the phone rang and it was my wife,” Embry recalled Friday afternoon.

Seven years earlier he had married fellow Miami University student, Theresa “Terri” Jackson, a former Roosevelt High student in Dayton, who had graduated from Jefferson Township High. By 1965 they had three small children.

“Over the phone she tells me she and Yvonne – that’s Oscar’s wife – were going to Selma, Alabama to join Dr. King’s march to Montgomery,” Embry said.

That was two weeks after another planned march to push for the right of African Americans to vote had ended when the peaceful participants crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma and encountered a brutal attack by state troopers and a posse of deputized vigilantes, who swung nightsticks and used teargas while mounted lawmen charged the crowd on horseback.

Many marchers were injured on what became known as “Bloody Sunday.”

Embry knew the next march – which was intended to go the 50.5 miles from Selma to the state capitol – would be dangerous too and he said he told Terri: “’You can’t go! You’ve got three children at home!’

“But she said, ‘Yes, we’re going! We’re leaving this evening. And don’t tell Oscar. Yvonne is about to call him.’

“And as soon as we hung up, the phone rang again. It was Yvonne for Oscar.

“Our wives were very courageous to do that, but I know (Terri) felt compelled because she was working at a neighborhood association in Cincinnati and those were still Jim Crow times and there were a lot of injustices. The civil rights movement hadn’t reached the top yet. There was still a lot of work to be done.”

He knew that well.

Even though he’d been a sports star at Tecumseh High School and Miami University and then became an NBA All-Star, he often had faced racial slights, indignities and even threats.

At Tecumseh in the early 1950s, he had been one of just two black students at the school and early on there were some taunts by a vocal few. The other student, a girl, transferred elsewhere and he wanted to leave, too, but his grandfather, the patriarch of the 70-acre farm the extended family shared just outside Springfield, wouldn’t allow him to surrender.

“He believed in the 80/20 rule,” Embry once told me. “If 80 percent of the people were good, 20 percent shouldn’t rule.”

He reiterated that thought when we spoke Friday: “He said, ‘Let those who hate you, motivate you and do what you can do to rise above.’”

That’s what Embry did and he became one of Tecumseh’s most popular students and an inspiration to his teammates who soon had his back during prejudicial incidents.

When the team stopped at a restaurant in Springfield and Embry was not only served last, but given his food in a sack and told to eat outside, all the other players got up instead and walked out.

When a hotel manager in Cincinnati said Embry couldn’t stay there with the rest of the team, the players and coaches threatened to leave until the place relented.

But the most hurtful incident may have been when Embry and some white friends worked for a farmer during the summer. They all were given a lunch, but when Embry finished with his glass, the farmer broke it so no one else would use it.

Although Embry loved the University of Dayton basketball team, listened to every game on the radio as a kid and dreamed of one day playing for the Flyers, he wasn’t recruited by coach Tom Blackburn.

Instead he chose Miami over Ohio State and became one of the first black athletes on campus. He thrived there and in 1958 he began a career in the NBA that now – as an advisor to the Toronto Raptors – spans 63 years.

Although a bullet and a death threat where once left for him in Milwaukee, he again stood taller than his 6-foot-8 height and three years after his playing career ended there, he became the Bucks general manager, the first African American to hold the position in NBA history.

And 22 years later with the Cleveland Cavaliers, he again made history when he became the league’s first black team president and CEO.

Credit: Miami University Jeff Sabo

Credit: Miami University Jeff Sabo

During those years Terri was carving her own path, serving as a chairman of the Urban League, both in Milwaukee and then Cleveland, while also guiding younger NBA wives through some of the same challenges she had faced.

Because of their life’s work overcoming racial barriers and championing social justice, Wayne and the late Terri – she died last August 27 at age 82 – are receiving one of Miami University’s most prestigious honors.

On May 18 they will receive the Freedom Summer of ’64 Award, which is given annually to notable leaders who have set an example while championing civil rights.

Previous winners include the late Congressman John Lewis; the Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in Philadelphia, Mississippi; broadcaster Joe Madison, a proponent of voting rights, a former NAACP board member and a Dayton Roosevelt grad and football standout; and Carolyn Jefferson-Jenkins, a civil rights activist, author and the first woman of color to serve as the president of the League of Women’s Voters.

The award pays tribute to the 800 students who gathered for two weeks in June of 1964 at the Western College for Women in Oxford – it’s now a part of Miami University – to be trained non-violent techniques to use when facing threats while registering African American to vote in the South and especially in Mississippi.

Two of the people taking part in the sessions – 24-year-old Mickey Schwerner and 20-year-old Andrew Goodman – were killed, along with 21-year-old Mississippian James Chaney, by the Ku Klux Klan and associates as soon as they got to Philadelphia, Mississippi.

Their deaths and the work of the young people trained in Oxford that summer – as well as the marches and other pursuits led by people like Dr. Martin Luther King – helped pave the way for the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

It’s also hoped the Freedom Summer of ’64 award ignites a social justice spirit and commitment in current students, faculty and everyday citizens.

Following the 11 a.m. ceremony in front of Millet Hall to honor the Embrys, the formation of a new Wayne Embry Scholarship will be announced and a statue of Embry launching his trademark hook shot – made by Tom Tsuchiya who sculpted the bronze likenesses of Cincinnati Reds’ legends at Great American Ball Park – will be unveiled near the front entrance to the arena.

While Embry has been honored many times before, including at Miami – where he’s in the Athletics Hall of Fame and his No. 23 jersey has been retired – and at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis on Martin Luther King Day two years ago, he said this award moves him most:

“This means much more because my wife is being honored, too. She’s the one who had the courage to fight for social justice and equality back in the late ’50s and ’60s. She did a lot of good for a lot of people.”

Mississippi Training Session

Back in June of 1964, Western College for Women – already in operation for 109 years and a decade before it merged with Miami University – hosted what was then known as the Mississippi Training Session for 800 students.

It was sponsored by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and much of the training took place in Peabody and Clawson halls on campus.

While Schwerner and his wife Rita were helping with in the Oxford sessions, he got word a church in Philadelphia, Mississippi that was helping with voter registration had been torched.

He and Goodman headed there immediately, but soon after arriving, they and Chaney disappeared.

Two days later – on June 23 – their burned out car was discovered. This was all happening as the training sessions were still going on in Oxford.

Two month later, the bodies of the trio were found buried in an earthen dam on a nearby farm.

While the incident horrified a nation, Mississippi authorities arrested no one. Eventually, thanks to U.S. Justice Department investigators, some 18 suspects were indicted for violating the murdered men’s civil rights.

Seven defendants were found guilty, but all were out of jail within six years.

It wasn’t until 41 years after the fact that then 80-year-old Edgar Ray Killen, a KKK organizer and a Baptist preacher, was convicted of three counts of manslaughter and sentenced to 60 years in prison. He died behind bars three years ago.

Miami University has made several efforts to honor the three slain men and celebrate the efforts and spirit of the student volunteers who filled busses and cars – even after it was announced their fellow volunteers likely had been killed– and headed from Oxford to Mississippi.

The lobbies of three residence halls on campus have been dedicated to the trio and there’s a memorial on campus.

There’s also a walking tour (“Walk with Me”) in which students take visitors to various Freedom Summer sites on campus while in the persona of the 1964 trainees and teachers whose letters and insights they’ve drawn on for their presentations.

‘Still very hopeful’

The current racial strife – with the continued police killings of blacks, the social justice protests across the nation and the recent and rare conviction of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the killing of George Floyd – has been on the mind of the 84-year-old Embry, just as it has been on so many others in our nation.

“I’ve hoped we don’t regress back to some of those times in the ’60s because they were turbulent when it came to the civil rights movement,” he said. “We had the assassinations of our leaders, church bombings, the murder of those three young guys.

Credit: Miami University Jeff Sabo

Credit: Miami University Jeff Sabo

“I thought we made some good progress through the ’70s and ’80s with various affirmative action programs. But as for what we’re going through today, I don’t know if it’s resentment stored up in a generation of people or what. But I’m still very hopeful that we can come through this.”

He believes NBA players have a right to speak out on injustices “just like anybody else does. I think it’s important as long as it’s respectful and nonviolent. I think an athlete can be an example.” He certainly was and he said a lot of goes back to those lessons he learned from his granddad.

They have helped him navigate life and especially to blossom at Miami, where he was a two-time All Mid-American Conference first team selection and the team captain and the MVP.

In three seasons (freshmen weren’t eligible to play varsity then) he scored 1,407 points and grabbed 1,117 rebounds.

He later served on the Board of Trustees for 14 years and was the chairman for one.

But the most important thing he did at Miami was meet Terri.

“Me and my teammates were at the student union ad she was there with her roommates,” he said. “I’d always been very shy, but my teammates encouraged me to meet her and they shoved me toward her.

“I finally did ask her out to a movie at the old Talawanda Theatre in Oxford – but we were both very nervous about it.

“We didn’t have much conversation while we were walking down there to the show. In fact, the first words out of her mouth came when we got there. She said, ‘You gonna fit in these seats? What are you gonna do with your legs?’

“We laughed about that over the years.”

When he retold the story Friday, he was laughing again.

As it turns out, he answered her perfectly. He not only fit himself into the seat, he turned out to be a great, 62-years-of-marriage fit for her.

And, as will be evidenced May 18, he has been a great fit for the challenges of social justice and civil rights that have come along throughout his life.

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