NBA basketball icon Wayne Embry ’58 recounts his harrowing wait to hear that his wife, Terri, was safe.

By Donna Boen ’83, MTSC ’96, MIAMIAN EDITOR

When NBA executive and basketball icon Wayne Embry ’58 and his late wife, Terri Jackson Embry ’60, were honored with Miami University’s Freedom Summer of ’64 Award last May, Wayne spoke of Terri, his wife of 62 years, and her work advancing civil rights and social justice.

“I’m only the recipient of about 25% of this award. The other 75% goes to my beloved wife, Terri,” Wayne said. “Because she’s the one who was an advocate for change.”

Even when her advocacy meant risking her life.

In his 2004 autobiography, “The Inside Game: Race, Power, and Politics in the NBA,” Wayne tells of Terri and her close friend Yvonne Crittenden marching from Selma to Montgomery with Martin Luther King Jr. in March of 1965.

Playing for the Cincinnati Royals at the time, he was on the road with the team, sharing a room with teammate and friend Oscar Robertson, Yvonne’s husband.

The following excerpt from his autobiography tells the story:

Oscar and I were in our hotel room in Philadelphia, watching the evening news on March 20, 1965, when the telephone rang. I answered it. Terri was on the other end.

“Yvonne and I are going to Selma to join Dr. King’s march to Montgomery,” my wife told me. “Don’t tell Oscar. Yvonne will call him as soon as we get off the phone.”

I could not help myself. “Are you crazy?” I asked her. “Have you been watching the news?”

She assured me she had and that, in fact, that was precisely why she wanted to join the protest.

“We are going,” she said firmly. “We’ll be all right.”

I hung up, and told Oscar to expect a call from his wife. Before the words were out of my mouth, the phone rang again.

“Okay, Yvonne,” were the only words I heard him say.

Martin Luther King Jr. speaks to the crowd in Selma after the first attempt at the march was aborted on March 9, 1965. Black and white photos courtesy of the Library of Congress

Though we admired their courage, we were worried. We could not keep from thinking about “Bloody Sunday” on March 7, when troopers beat demonstrators with clubs and hoses. This march, from Selma to Montgomery, was to protest the fact that blacks were denied the right to vote in Alabama and throughout the South, and it had the potential to spawn the same sort of violence.

The next day we traveled to Boston to finish the season. As was our custom, Oscar and I went to the Russells’ for our pre-game meal. But when we got there, we sat in the den with our eyes glued to the television set, watching for news of our wives and the march.

The coverage did nothing to allay our fears. In fact, it confirmed our worries. We saw thousands of determined blacks and whites orderly marching down Route 80, which was lined by armed National Guard units. There appeared to be an equal number of whites throwing rocks and sticks and anything else they could get their hands on.

Protesters cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River during the Selma to Montgomery March for voting rights in March 1965.

Somehow we managed to drag ourselves away from the television and head to the arena, where, not surprisingly, we were distracted and lost to the Celtics. When we got back to the hotel, we got a call from our wives, but instead of calming us, it only served to further worry us. They could not talk, they said, because they were at a pay phone in a dangerous area. All they told us was that they were due to return to the Cincinnati airport shortly after we were to land.

That was one night I stayed up to watch television with Oscar. We were saddened to learn that Viola Liuzzo, a white civil rights activist from Detroit, was killed by a sniper’s bullet on her way back from the march. We knew we would not rest until our wives were safely back home.

Some 25,000 civil rights demonstrators crowd Dexter Avenue in front of the Alabama state capitol in Montgomery on March 25, 1965, as the Selma to Montgomery March comes to an end.

It was a long wait at the airport the next day until their chartered DC-3 landed and two familiar but weary faces appeared on the jetway. Although visibly exhausted, both mentally and physically, they were eager to tell us about the horrible experience. They told us they had walked hand-in-hand singing verses from “We Shall Overcome” and other spiritual songs while the angry mobs shouted racial epithets and threw things at them. They had to lie flat under blankets in the back of a truck in order to get to the airport safely. Both said the experience changed their lives because they had never been exposed to that kind of violence or hatred.

With that as a backdrop, somehow basketball just did not seem quite as important.

Honoring MLK’s Legacy

You are invited to attend Miami University’s virtual Martin Luther King Jr. Day commemoration at 10 a.m. this morning (Jan. 17, 2022). The program will focus on voting rights and the relevance of Dr. King’s message in the 21st century. Guest speakers will highlight the history and continuing significance of Freedom Summer’s 1964 voter registration drive training on Western College’s campus in Oxford, Ohio.

The program will be available for viewing on YouTube after the event.