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MLK50

Olympic gold medalist and seven-time world champion Brittney Reese believes MLK’s dream is alive and well

The long jump star says King’s beliefs influenced her a lot in her journey

On Aug. 28, 1963, King delivered one of his most powerful and inspirational speeches at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. The “I Have a Dream” speech became known as one of his most famous oral addresses in American history.

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,’ ” King said.

The civil rights movement was also a time when athletes were facing equality issues of their own. And King knew sports. He knew sports was and would become a platform in society, lending cultural relevance to race and politics.

And 50 years later, King is still affecting the sports world today, inspiring athletes like Olympic gold medalist (2012) Brittney Reese. A multitalented athlete who played high school basketball in her hometown of Gulfport, Mississippi, Reese recognizes King knew the significance sports would have on society, although he was never an athlete. The 31-year-old seven-time world champion says his dream is alive.

“I’m in a sport that’s predominantly black, and it just is amazing how we come together as athletes in our sports,” Reese said. “He [King] actually kind of paved the way. And then Muhammed Ali paved the way for us to be able to be in a sport without having any kind of racial tension going on. We still have some bumps in the road and there will be some bad eggs in the basket now and then, but I feel like his dream is still alive and still doing some of the things he preached about in certain sermons.”

In the 1960s, King appeared publicly with Ali at a demonstration for fair housing in Louisville, Kentucky. Track stars such as Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in a Black Power salute during the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City.

These are just a few moments that merge sports and culture that she will never forget.

Reese gained popularity when she began dominating in track and field in high school. The long jump is her area of expertise. It’s a title she wears with pride. She still holds the indoor American record in the long jump with a distance of 7.23 meters.

But through all of her accomplishments, she often recalls the first time she heard of King. It wasn’t in a textbook. It was at home by way of her mentor and grandfather King David Dunomes, who shared stories about the civil rights movement, including the time he traveled to Washington, D.C., to hear King’s speech.

“Growing up, I knew probably a lot more than a lot of other people in my area, but being able to see the effect he’s made across the world, especially for black people, is real remarkable,” Reese said of what she learned about King. “I’m grateful to have a grandfather that was supporting him through those times and was able to walk with him in those times. I got to learn a lot of the insights that most people my age wouldn’t know. He made a big impact in my life.”

Dunomes died suddenly in 2017, which marks one of the hardest times in Reese’s life. But she is an overcomer and keeps all of her memories of her grandfather close to her heart.

Reese is a seven-time USA Track & Field Outdoor Women’s Champion in the long jump, a three-time World Outdoor Champion (2009, 2011, 2013), a three-time World Indoor Champion (2010, 2012, 2016), the current indoor long jump American record holder besides being the 2012 Olympic Games gold medalist and 2016 Olympic Games silver medalist.

She is also the track coach at San Diego Mesa College. Born in Inglewood, California, and raised in Gulfport, Reese began by competing in the high jump and 400-meter dash. She was named Mississippi’s 2004 Gatorade Player of the Year for track and field and enrolled at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College and played basketball before accepting a track and field scholarship to the University of Mississippi.

As she trains daily for her upcoming indoor long jump competition just one month away, she is raising her 10-year-old son Alex, who she says doesn’t experience a lot of racial tension. However, Reese plans to instill King’s memory in him by teaching the importance of equality.

“He doesn’t see a lot of the racial tension. But I want him to understand that he’s a black kid, and what we went through, and what Dr. Martin Luther King did helped allow him to be able to play with the kids that he likes to play with now. He doesn’t see color, which is something I want to teach him. But I also want him to know his roots and his family … Let him know where he came from and what Dr. Martin Luther King stood for, and how he’s able to be around the people that he’s around today.”

Informing Alex of his roots is a priority for Reese. It’s a sentiment she internalized from her great-grandmother Ethel Lee Brooks, who always told her to “know where she came from” and taught her the act of giving back.

“I think that played a significant part in my career and in my life also,” Reese said. “Once I attained the medal [Olympic gold], the first thing I did was come home and show the kids back in Gulfport, Mississippi, what I’ve done. I’ve been blessed and lucky to have a city to be behind me every step of the way. They’ve been behind me my entire life, ever since I was young enough to give a newspaper, they were there.”

To pay homage to Brooks and keep up with King’s ideology of the moral function of education, she launched the B. Reese Scholarship in 2012, which helps one male and one female student annually with upcoming college expenses. In May 2013, the Reese Scholarship was even awarded in Baltimore County Public Schools.

“I want to try to motivate the kids and get them involved in track, and that’s where the scholarship came from — helping other mothers, because there’s a lot of single mothers out there. The scholarships have a lot of funds, but just to help them with books for the first semester or help them get started on their way. And I also have a camp that I like to put on and help show the other kids different drills that they can do to help them be successful in the next part of their life. I think my great-grandmother was the reason that I just got so accustomed to giving back, because her telling me never forget where you came from has always stuck with me.”

She donates turkeys over the holidays and spends a lot of time with the homeless in Gulfport.

“You know, it’s been a tough journey. I’ve had ups and downs, but I’d say one of the better is probably my Olympic medals. That’s been the highlight of my career. Me being able to have that lets them know how hard I worked, and that nothing in life is easy, that you’re going to have to work to get what you want.”

Kelley Evans is a general editor at The Undefeated. She is a food passionista, helicopter mom and an unapologetic southerner who spends every night with the cast of The Young and the Restless by way of her couch.