50 years after her grandfather was a civil rights giant, this Rutgers coach has blazed her own path toward social justice

“Let’s talk about Black Lives Matter and the protests that are happening around the country, and why they should be important to you – and why they are to me. But first, let me tell you about my grandfather. His name was Reginald Hawkins, and he was a proud Black man who fearlessly worked to desegregate schools and restaurants and lunch counters in North Carolina in the 1960s. Back then, as they are now, Blacks were fighting for social justice and equality and civil rights. But just like today, leaders and protestors were targets. It was a dangerous time for Blacks who threatened the status quo. The Ku Klux Klan targeted my grandfather, and his home was bombed in 1965.

“My grandfather worked alongside Martin Luther King Jr., but they often butted heads. As history tells us, Dr. King was peaceful and non-violent in his approach. My grandfather was a bit more, uh, forceful. But, in 1968, when my grandfather announced that he was running for governor – the first Black to run for statewide office in the post-Reconstruction South — Martin Luther King Jr. pledged to campaign with him.

“Just before a scheduled campaign event with my grandfather, however, King canceled a trip to Greensboro to remain in Memphis, where Blacks were protesting for better wages. Two days later, he was assassinated.”

Umme Salim-Beasley was talking to her Rutgers gymnastics team as she has dozens of times. But this talk, in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police, was different. This time, it was personal. With her players mesmerized by a history lesson that included Dr. Martin Luther King, she told the story of her grandfather, one of the most significant but forgotten leaders of the civil rights era. Maybe now the gymnasts would understand why Salim-Beasley never backed away from discussions about race and social justice.

The outrage over the George Floyd killing and the debate surrounding the Derek Chauvin trial happening in Minneapolis? Bring it on.

The intense reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement? Let’s talk about it.

The insurrection at the U.S. Capitol? A teachable moment.

Salim-Beasley doesn’t hesitate to share stories about her grandfather, the late Dr. Reginald Hawkins, one of the most significant — and forgotten — leaders of the civil rights era. Hawkins died in 2007, in the same Charlotte hospital he helped desegregate. He left a legacy that his granddaughter continues.

Now in her third season as the Rutgers gymnastics coach, Salim-Beasley represents the athletics program on the Big Ten Anti-Hate and Anti-Racism Coalition and serves as co-chair of the NCAA Diversity and Inclusion Committee for women’s gymnastics.

Conversations that would make other collegiate coaches uncomfortable, she embraces, especially if they spark a sincere exchange.

“The purpose of me sharing my family’s story was to get them to listen and be open to other people’s experiences,” she said. “A lot of time, we don’t get to know people’s stories because maybe it doesn’t come up in conversation or it’s not something that you want to talk about in everyday conversation. But I think when it’s a situation that you feel might be relatable or help them see where your experiences have shaped you as a person, it becomes a teachable moment.

“Coaches want to teach our athletes more than just the sport itself. We want to be able to enlighten them and get them to understand that your teammates are coming from different backgrounds.”

Just like Salim-Beasley, whose father is Black and mother is Filipino.

“I tell them, ‘These are my experiences and this is what my family’s history is,’ and if it helps them become more knowledgeable about what’s going on outside of their student-athlete bubble,” she said, “that’s not a bad thing.”

A trail blazer from the start

Rutgers coach Umme Salim-Beasley

Now in her third season as Rutgers gymnastics coach, Umme Salim-Beasley (pictured right) has led the Scarlet Knights to a historic 2021 campaign. Rutgers scored its highest finish in a Big Ten Championship meet in addition to qualifying two gymnasts — Hannah Joyner and Belle Huang — for the NCAA Regionals.

The news that Rutgers had lured Salim-Beasley from her head-coaching post at Temple in May 2018 generated little fanfare, but athletic director Pat Hobbs considers it one of his most significant hires. The gymnastics program needed a jolt after failing to qualify out of the first session in the Big Ten Championships in its first four years in the conference. Hobbs picked Salim-Beasley, a Maryland native who paid her dues in the coaching ranks as an assistant at Rutgers following a standout collegiate career at West Virginia.

“The wonderful thing about Umme is she was the best coach for the position, and she brought her diversity and her experiences to the position as well,” Hobbs said. “In terms of an African American student-athlete who aspires to be a coach, when you see that reality, it’s not just a dream but it’s something you can achieve.”

Salim-Beasley was a national qualifier at the club level before earning a full scholarship at West Virginia. She was named Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year in 1995, earned spots on the All-EAGL First Team in all-around, bars and beam during her sophomore and junior seasons, and earned a 10.0 on the uneven bars during her senior season in a meet at Rutgers.

“By her sophomore year I knew Umme would coach,” said Linda Burette-Goode, her former coach at West Virginia. “I probably have 10 or 15 of my gymnasts coaching. With most athletes, you have to teach them to love the sport while showing them what they need to do in order to train at a really high level. Umme had that from Day One, and I probably learned a little bit of that from her, too.”

Salim-Beasley admits she had the itch to coach from an early age, but she knew the odds were stacked against her.

“It was a time when there just wasn’t a whole lot of representation (of Black coaches) in the coaching ranks,” she said. There has been an uptick recently, but Salim-Beasley said, “the sport still has a long way to go.’’

There were 62 women’s gymnastics head coaches at the NCAA Division I level in 2020. According to NCAA’s demographics database, three were Black. The statistics also show minimal diversity among competitors. Of 1,087 women’s gymnasts, 64.2% identified as white, 9.4% as Black and 26.4% as another racial demographic.

Salim-Beasley calls it her mission to do something about the lack of diversity. It’s why she serves as chair of the Olympic Sports subcommittee for the Advancement of Blacks in Sports. She is pushing for historically Black colleges to sponsor varsity women’s gymnastics programs. She briefly considered attending Howard University — the Washington D.C. school where several relatives earned their degrees — but changed her mind during a college fair.

“I stopped at the table and asked about their gymnastics program and they kind of laughed and said, ‘We’re a Black school. We don’t have a sport like gymnastics,’” she said. “That was a jolt to my system, because I was naive to thinking everybody had this sport. There’s never been an HBCU school that’s had gymnastics but there is definitely a movement. We can make this happen.”

A family legacy steeped in civil rights struggles

Umme Salim-Beasley

Umme Salim-Beasley (top, left) pictured with her grandfather, Dr. Reginald Hawkins (lower, left). On the right is Rev. Martin Luther King (bottom, right) with Hawkins (top, right).

As a kid, Salim-Beasley didn’t need a history book to learn about the civil rights era. She needed only a cozy spot on the living room floor. Story time would include tales of how her grandfather confronted desegregation in the 1950s and 1960s. Historians say Hawkins was aggressive in his approach, but she knew “Pop” as a passionate advocate for racial equality.

“There are quite a few stories calling him the ‘militant Black dentist,’” she said. “My grandfather was a force not only in civil rights but he was a force in life.”

With protests and lawsuits, the man affectionately known as “Hawk’’ pushed to desegregate schools, hospitals and restaurants in Charlotte in the face of blatant racism.

“He’d fight for people of color who wanted to go out and vote,” she said. “The KKK would show up at polling places to try to stop them from voting. They were being threatened. My grandfather refused to be intimidated.”

Reginald Hawkins

A campaign flier for Dr. Reginald Hawkins’ 1968 gubernatorial bid in North Carolina.

When members of the hate group bombed Hawkins’ home in 1965, his response was to run for the state’s highest office three years later. The first Black to run for governor of North Carolina, Hawkins was unsuccessful in 1968 despite receiving 130,000 votes in the Democratic primary.

“Dr. Hawkins made folks realize you had to be brave in order to break the chokehold of oppression,’” said Willie Ratchford, executive director of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Community Relations Committee. “You can’t be fearful, you can’t be a coward, you have to fight back even if it means putting your life on the line. He did exactly that.”

In May 1963, Hawkins led dozens of protestors on a four-mile march from a predominantly Black college campus to Charlotte’s downtown. Once there, he famously declared: “We shall not be pacified with gradualism. We shall not be satisfied with tokenism. We want freedom and we want it now.”

He warned city officials that if they didn’t act to end segregation, future protests wouldn’t be so peaceful. Eventually, he formed a truce with then-Charlotte Mayor Stand Brookshire. In an effort to desegregate the city’s restaurants, they developed a plan to have prominent members of the white and Black communities eat together inside establishments that wouldn’t cater to people of color.

Ratchford calls is “a turning point in the civil rights movement down here,” but it’s just another story in a family history steeped in civil rights — “just a normal part of growing up, hearing the history behind them being advocates for social justice and change,” Salim-Beasley said.

Her father also has been a prominent civil rights leader throughout his life. Born Reginald Hawkins Jr., he changed his name to Abdullah Salim because of his faith.

“My father, in his own right, played a big part in the civil rights movement,” Salim-Beasley said. “He lobbied the University of North Carolina to start an African-American studies program. He’s in the UNC Chapel Hill museum for starting that. He was one of the students who pushed them to take down a statue of a confederate general. He wasn’t fearful to speak up about what is right.”

And it started when her father first arrived at the University of North Carolina.

“They were admitting African-Americans at the time but they weren’t wanting to admit them at the time,” Salim-Beasley said. “When they found out he was my grandfather’s son, they intentionally roomed him with the son of the head dragon of the KKK in Chapel Hill to intimidate him to leave. My father stood his ground and said, ‘I’m not leaving, you leave.’ And, of course, the roommate ended up leaving.”

Her mother, too, taught her not to back down from challenges.

“She grew up in California in a Navy family that was very conservative,’’ Salim-Beasley said. “But my mom was a rebel. She went against the grain of what her family wanted for her, which was to marry a Filipino man, be a housewife and have lots of kids. She met my father, converted religions, and went through a time where she was disowned from her family for over 10 years. Eventually my grandparents came to terms with the fact that she had changed religions and had married an African-American, but that definitely played a part in how she was raising us because she never wanted us to feel like we weren’t accepted.”

Getting athletes out of the college bubble

The third Monday of January is typically one of the busiest days of the year for Salim-Beasley. It’s the start of Rutgers’ spring semester, and there’s usually a meet to prepare for. This year was no different, but because of a COVID-19 issue, Rutgers had to pull out of a tri-meet against Ohio State and Michigan. As gymnasts began preparing for what they hoped to be their season opener against Illinois, Salim-Beasley decided to teach a history lesson when the team met on Jan. 17.

It was Martin Luther King Jr. Day, after all.

“It’s more than just a date on the calendar,” she said. “It’s something that we want our athletes to know the purpose behind it. I don’t think they truly know the impact of what he did and how it changed the world to what we’re living in now. And, of course, I take pride in being able to educate them on the connection with my background — my grandfather working with Dr. King.”

She encouraged the gymnasts to Google her grandfather and read about the haunting twist of fate that might’ve spared King’s life. Two days before he was scheduled to campaign with Hawkins at a church in Greensboro, N.C., King canceled because he was needed at sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis.

MLK western union

A Western Union dated April 2, 1968, explains why Dr. Martin Luther King was forced to cancel a trip to North Carolina to campaign with Dr. Reginald Hawkins — two days before he was assassinated in Memphis.

It’s all documented inside a University of North Carolina-Charlotte museum, where a Western Union telegram is preserved. It reads: “We are sorry to have to inform you at this last minute of the postponement of Dr. King’s scheduled tour of your area. … We are grateful for your efforts and contributions. … We do look forward to being with you.”

It was dated April 2, 1968.

Two days later, King was murdered in Memphis.

“I would concur with historians who are of the mindset that Dr. King’s murder would have happened eventually just given the racial climate of the country at the time,” Ratchford said. “It’s just by the grace of God that it happened in Memphis as opposed to here. Based on what I know of Dr. Hawkins, I think had it happened in Greensboro — had Dr. King accepted that invitation (to campaign) — that would have bothered Dr. Hawkins for the rest of his life. I think it’s both a blessing that it didn’t happen here and a curse that he went somewhere else.”

The images of Salim-Beasley’s grandfather marching with King are indelible. It’s why she used the holiday to teach a more relatable lesson.

“Young student athletes tend to be in their own bubble,” she said. “I was guilty of that when I was in college, too, where I was so programmed to focus on nothing but competing. I’ve really tried to encourage them to spread their wings and experience what being a college student is like. ‘Go find out what’s going on campus, stop in and find out what’s going on with this club.’ I want them to realize their college experience can be as small as they want it to be or as big as they want it to be. That is my hope.”

Sharing her story with the world

Rutgers coach Umme Salim-Beasley

Rutgers coach Umme Salim-Beasley congratulates standout gymnast Hannah Joyner during a meet in 2021.

Nine days before her squad concluded a 16-week Big Ten schedule with a program-record score and best finish at the conference championships last week, Salim-Beasley sat at her dining room table for a meeting with Rutgers’ newly formed Racial Justice Working Group.

The first videoconference featured 25 athletes from various sports, a dozen coaches and a dozen administrators. It occurred not long after the George Floyd killing had rocked the nation.

“We invited folks to share their story and Umme really stole the show, telling us about this amazing family history that none of us knew about,” Hobbs said. “She shared all of it, including how she was one of the very few African-American gymnasts at the time when she was competing. When she went to college, it was a largely white sport and she shared with us the ugly taunts she’d get during competitions.

“For our student-athletes, in the wake of the tragedies this past summer, it was a good opportunity to hear how she persevered through those hardships and why she wanted to bring her experiences to lead not only our Rutgers gymnastics program but also to be one of our leaders in our continued efforts to combat racism.”

Sophomore Hannah Joyner had listened to her coach address the team in hundreds of speeches during her collegiate career. But she didn’t know her coach’s story.

She was unaware that Salim-Beasley’s grandfather was a leader in the civil rights movement in the 1960s. She had no idea that Salim-Beasley’s father has been an integral force in the civil rights movement himself, helping hundreds of people become documented citizens as a lawyer specializing in immigration naturalization.

“Hearing that as an African-American woman was amazing,” said Joyner, an All-Big Ten first-team selection and an NCAA Regional qualifier this season, along with teammate Belle Huang.

Salim-Beasley hopes her family’s struggles inspire her athletes to learn more about the social justice issues gripping the nation.

“We want to enlighten our athletes and get them to understand they’re working with a lot of people from different backgrounds,” she said. “Every one of their teammates had a different path to get here. The same goes for myself — these are my experiences and this is what my family’s history is. And I hope that it helps them become more knowledgeable about issues that might be coming up now.”

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