Seeing proved to be believing for Zed Key.
It’s not that the Ohio State third-year men’s basketball player wasn’t aware of the civil rights movement or the ongoing struggle for racial inequality, but physically being in Alabama and walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge along with more than 100 of his collegiate brethren ?
“My hair was standing on my arms,” Key said. “I was like, they were really here doing this. Everyone was quiet. There was no noise. It was such a surreal moment.”
The experience proved to be a profound one for Key. A brainchild of the Big Ten Equality Coalition, the trip involved a group of student-athletes, administrators coaches and other staff members converging on Montgomery and Selma, Alabama, from July 15-17 for the “Big Life Series: Selma to Montgomery” experience .
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Key said he was approached by Ohio State director of professional development Terence Dials about participating and that he agreed without knowing all the details about the upcoming journey. That led him to do some research.
It didn’t take long to realize that this was going to resonate differently than a high school history lesson.
“I didn’t know how in-depth it was going to be, so once I went down there and saw how detailed they went and how much stuff they had lined up for us I was like, ‘Oh wow,’ ” Key said . “This trip was so great because it was hands-on. We got to listen to speakers (who were) actually at the march down in Selma. We also got to go to some of the museums and see a whole bunch of different landmarks down there.
“It was definitely a lot better than reading it in the textbooks.”
The first day consisted of getting settled in Montgomery and listening to keynote speaker Sheyann Webb-Christburg, an eyewitness to the 1965 “Bloody Sunday” attack in Selma in which hundreds of civil rights activists were attacked and beaten by white state troopers and sheriff’s deputies. The Big Ten contingent also viewed the documentary series “Eyes on the Prize.”
The next day, went to the First Baptist Church Selma, where Martin Luther King Jr. spoke during the civil rights movement, and then to the Edmund Pettus Bridge, site of the worst of the “Bloody Sunday” clashes.
“I knew a little bit about (what happened), but the textbooks don’t do it justice,” Key said. “The education system doesn’t do it justice. It doesn’t explain everything in detail. It doesn’t explain half the stuff that I saw or that they went through marching back then with the beatings by the police and the stuff that they went through.”
Each night, Key said the opportunity to speak with fellow from different universities and reflect on what they saw and felt was a personal highlight. Some of the videos taken during these sessions will be released next year during Black History Month. The third-year center was one of five Ohio State, joining Jaydan Wood (women’s track & field), Donovan Hewitt (men’s gymnastics), Brooke Shields (cheer) and Nina LaFlore (women’s soccer).
The trip gave Key a greater appreciation for what it took for him to be able to play college basketball.
“Just some of the stuff they were going through, if they didn’t go through that, if they didn’t sit through that, our lives would be totally different right now,” he said. “It really opened my eyes. Basketball, everything would’ve been totally different. They did it to help us and now we’re doing it to help the young generation.”
Going forward, Key said he plans to use his platform to be more proactive about causes he cares about.
“People need to go down there and see because the education system doesn’t do it justice,” he said. “I’m going to go back to the social media aspect: equality. If you see something not right, don’t just sit back and say, ‘Someone else is gonna do it.’ No, you need to start the change. You need to go out there and do it. That’s what I say to everyone. Don’t sit back.”