Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Chris Conley has only been a member of the organization for a little over a year, but his impact on the franchise and city has already been felt in a big way, culminating in a display of leadership and strength from the veteran on Friday.
Conley was one of the centerpieces of the Jaguars' team-wide march to protest racial inequality and social injustice on Friday, leaving a mark on the Jacksonville community that will likely not be forgotten. The Jaguars are a part of the fabric of Jacksonville, so when a player makes a stand like Conley did, it has its positive ramifications.
Conley was just one of several hundred players, coaches, front office members, administration, and family members who joined in on the march, but the day will likely be long remembered for the words he spoke while standing along the steps of the Jacksonville Sheriffs Office.
"I urge you today, brothers and sisters, to know this history, study it, seek it, because through it, though it may make you uncomfortable, it will lead towards change," Conley said with emotion and conviction in his voice. "George Santayana said, ‘those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.’ The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King said, ‘We are not makers of history. We are made by it.’ We cannot allow comfortability with revisionist history to disarm our minds and weaken our convictions."
Through a speech that was remarkably candid, direct, and impassioned, Conley touched on the injustices that have plagued African Americans and other minorities in the United States for centuries. But Conley took it a step further than that: he also dived into the racial wounds which have been left in Jacksonville over the last several decades.
"A confederate monument sits a couple of blocks from here, praising the south’s dark past. Our revisionist history would tell us that it’s there to honor men fighting for states’ rights. But true history would tell us that, in the Cornerstone Address, Alexander Stevens said that our states are built on the fact that the negro is inferior, and slavery and subordination is its normal and natural state. That’s true history," Conley said.
"This monument sits a block from where the Ax Handle Saturday happened in Jacksonville. A block from it, reminding people in this city of what’s happened to them. True history would remind people that not only Confederate sympathizers butchered black people in the streets, but police joined them too."
For Conley, a relative newcomer to Jacksonville, to eloquently address Jacksonville's own shortcomings on the path to equality, it speaks volumes. Many Jacksonville natives who have spent decades in the city won't speak on the same topics Conley, who has been a member of the Jacksonville community for less than 16 months, touched on with ferocity and wisdom. Many never learned about the tragedy and disgrace of Ax Handle Saturday, or the fact that not far from TIAA Bank Field sits a confederate statute in Hemming Park.
"Take the time, to educate yourself, learn this country’s history, learn the city’s history. I took a crash course last night on Jacksonville civil rights history. Learned a lot. Learned a lot, you can still see the effects of some of the things that happened here downtown today if you walk around," Conley said. "That is what we need, that’s what we need to know. If we are going to move forward, you have to know your history."
Conley dug into both his heart and his mind to learn and then educate others on this topic on Friday, however. He used his platform to speak up for the Black Lives Matter protest and to speak against the pattern of police brutality in the country. For him to do so, he set both an example and likely wrote himself into Jacksonville history books.
The people of Jacksonville will remember the day the Jaguars marched side-by-side to the sheriffs office for years to come. When they think of it, they will likely think of head coach Doug Marrone, his coaching staff, and general manager Dave Caldwell donning Black Lives Matter shirts, or seas of Jaguars employees marching as one. They will also think about Conley's words atop the sheriff's office steps, and what it meant for him, a relative newcomer to a community which is centered around the Jaguars, to learn about the city and speak up for change inside and outside of it.
"You know, I do not now the affect that this will have on the league. We did not do this for the league. We did this for Jacksonville. We did this for this team," Conley said. "I do hope that is does encourage somebody to say, ‘You know what, I am not going to be quiet anymore.’ I hope that it does encourage people to say, ‘You know what, I may not understand but I am going to struggle, I am going to struggle, I am going to struggle with what this is and what is going on because by struggling I am growing.’”
In the fall, fans will be cheering for Conley between the white lines as he attempts to help the Jaguars' offense become a productive passing unit. But until then, it would be wise for those whose lives involve the Jaguars to consider the words Conley said Friday.
There are a lot of ways to make history. In a city like Jacksonville, NFL players have rare opportunities to do so. On Friday, Conley took charge and took advantage of said opportunity. The entire organization and its stance will be remembered, but so will, and so should, Conley's leadership and message.
"I want to say thank you. I want to say thank you to my black brothers and sisters who are out here. I want to say thank you to my white brothers and sisters who are out here. I want to say thank you to every single child who is out here, younger person who is out here because you’re seeing an example of what the future can be. You’re seeing an example of the future that’s fighting for you, right now," Conley said.
"I’m fighting for you. When I saw that video, I saw you. I saw you. I saw you. I saw all of you. Thank you to all of you. This is only the beginning. Don’t let people rile you up. Don’t let people tell you that you’re not worth it. When they say Black Lives Matter, they’re saying Black Lives Matter because they’re hurt right now. We’re not saying they matter more. I hope everyone here knows that. But let’s show it. This is only the beginning here in Jacksonville. Let’s make sure that we maintain this momentum so this is not a moment and this is a movement.”