North Star: How Toronto is linked to MLK

by Chris O'Leary

On a December day in Tampa, John Wiggins had grown frustrated that his brainstorm had given way to a fog. He tried to connect the fibres of his still-new role, a significant day for a crucial figure in the civil rights movement and the lone non-American city in the NBA. 

Wiggins was named the Raptors’ vice president of organizational culture and inclusion in July. The creation of that role is an acknowledgment that while Canada is different from its neighbour to the south, it too needs to address and try to eliminate racism. 

Wiggins left the team hotel and got in his rental car in search of some answers. 

“I just started driving,” he said. “Every major city (in the U.S.) has a Dr. Martin Luther King Blvd.” 

Wiggins followed that road to a MLK community center. That led him to the MLK Plaza at the University of South Florida campus, where there’s a bust of Dr. King and a large segment of his I Have a Dream speech inscribed in stone. He felt inspired and continued to think about that last component of his search. In a year where the Raptors are playing in Tampa, where Dr. King is memorialized around them, how can Toronto be connected to it on Monday for Martin Luther King Day?  

Sitting in his car on the sixth or seventh page of his Google search, Wiggins found his answer. He found audio of a Dr. King speech given in Nov. 1967, aired on the CBC as part of its Massey lecture series. 

In the almost 30-minute speech, Dr. King reflects on Canada being the North Star that slaves spoke of on their journey through the underground railroad. 

“We sang of heaven that awaited us and the slave masters listened in innocence, not realizing that we were not speaking of the hereafter,” King said. “Heaven was the word for Canada.” 

“We want to tell the story,” Wiggins said. “We're here in Tampa to celebrate him but we wanted to stay connected to our fans back home and educate them. That's the balancing act that we’re playing on Monday.” 

Those words and Dr. King’s messaging will feature in TSN’s broadcast of the Raptors’ MLK Day meeting with the Dallas Mavericks. 

The Raptors have played on MLK Days in years past and the NBA has long made it a marquee day on its calendar (five games air nationally in the U.S. on Monday). To some, this year carries a different weight to it, after a tumultuous 2020 that highlighted police brutality and inequality,  putting King’s quest for equality and freedom under a microscope. Others will tell you that you’re just starting to get a glimpse of the world as they’ve long seen it. 

“This kind of stuff has been happening pretty much the entirety of my whole life,” Raptors forward Stanley Johnson said. 

“I've always taken...celebrating Black History Month, Martin Luther King Day pridefully. It's always been a big deal for me and my family, we always take reverence to it. So it will feel no different. It's kind of sad that it won't feel any different (this year), because things should be changing a little faster than they are. People shouldn't feel as uncomfortable as they do to be minorities in our country, day after day, year after year.” 

Johnson mentioned what’s fresh in many of our minds, the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., an insurrection led by supporters of outgoing U.S. president Donald Trump. Johnson watched in astonishment at the treatment that crowd received in comparison to what Black Lives Matter protesters received all over the U.S. in the summer. 

“Every time I feel like we're at the bottom and there's only one way up, we find a way to dig ourselves even deeper,” Johnson said. “I don't know where it's going to go at this point, to be totally honest. It’s only gotten worse at this point, as to how flagrantly these things have been happening.” 

Johnson mentions incremental change, of good people in the world making things 1 per cent better than they were. That step-by-step movement, countered by moments like the murder of George Floyd, or the attack on the Capitol, try to push back on that progress, or at least show how much progress there still is to be made. 

“I think the most difficult part is that it's mentally fatiguing,” Johnson said. 

“It takes a certain amount of maturity as a grown adult to not act emotionally about the things that are happening. All of us have family and people that we represent. So if we want change, we also have to act the way we want people to act towards us. 

“That means not going back and bringing a fist if someone brings a fist on to you. I think that's the hardest part is, a lot of us have to be mild-mannered and all this cool stuff while other people are being flagrant about this type of stuff. To me, it's not really working out. It's not really working out for us.” 

Wiggins hears Johnson’s frustration and understands. He took on his role with the Raptors almost six months ago and found he had to temper his energy and his enthusiasm somewhat out of the gate. 

“I’ve been ready to change the world but it just doesn’t happen that way,” he said. 

“I can embrace that change takes time, especially if you want to do it the right way. Especially if you want to cover all of your bases and make sure that everyone’s included in the change and make sure it's not a singletary moment and that it is something that is everlasting. 

“I don't think 2021 is going to be a 1 per cent change. I also don't think everything is going to change (completely) tomorrow. There is a better balance that will happen between it.” 

Wiggins mentions U.S. politician Stacey Abrams and the decade-plus of work she put in to turn Georgia to a democrat state in the last election. Change is possible, but it’s a long and gruelling process that will be laced with lows -- Abrams ran for governor of Georgia in 2018 and lost -- before you see those highs. 

“It's that balance there,” Wiggins said. “We're no longer waiting for the right people to get into politics and don't have the right to vote. We're further along than that one per cent. We can make change happen much faster but it might not be, ‘Let’s change it tomorrow.’” 

Monday promises to be a unique one in Raptors’ history. The pandemic has them playing a home game in Tampa on MLK Day, when Dr. King’s words and message are as relevant now as they were when he was taken from the world on April 4, 1968. Wiggins will think of that, of where the world is right now and as the ball goes up on Monday, he’ll think about when King spoke in Toronto and the home he misses. 

“The thing I'm proud about is we're going to take some time to educate Toronto on MLK,” he said. 

“When you talk about our way forward, a lot of that is going to be educating people on some of these issues, some of these people, some of this history, for why we're moving forward the way we are. 

“I’ve always had MLK as a hero of my own and so it's really fitting that this is how we're going to start the year. We're really putting a good kind of a good story behind it for Monday.” 

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