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A Conversation with Loretta Claiborne About Racial Injustice

A companion, follow-up piece to "A Nation Heading Toward Change."

Loretta Claiborne always fought for equal rights growing up. It started as a young child and transitioned into her role as Chief Inspiration Officer for Special Olympics and as a member of the board of directors. During a time of sizable racial divide in the 1960s, she had to fight for inclusion because of her skin color, but also because she had different abilities. A fight she keeps alive to this day.

I recently had a conversation with Claiborne, during which she shared her story of racial injustice and her experience demanding inclusion for all. And she asked me a few questions in return from my perspective.

Nealon: You were born when the country was still very segregated, tell me about that?

Claiborne: You know, the movement of Special Olympics started in 1968 and two years later, I had joined Special Olympics. At the time I joined Special Olympics, my mom was kind of unsure whether I should be able to do it or not. She was weary just like any other parent; you have to remember that my mom was born when it was segregation—Blacks went to one bathroom, and Whites went to another. So, she's seen a lot during her time since being born in 1931.

She knew when I was born in 1953 that things were going to be rough for me. So, she always worried about me. I could see why she worried. As I look back, I was like, "Why are you so worried?" Well, she had a reason to be worried of what she came through.

So, of course, in 1968, our country was at a rift. It was not looking well. Blacks weren't liking Whites and Whites weren't liking Blacks. There were some really, really tough times. In my town, the riot started in 1969, of course, the riots really started in Chicago and other places in 1968.

Loretta resting her head on her hands.

Nealon: Were you shocked when you found out Special Olympics started in 1968 in Chicago?

Claiborne: At that time, I think about Special Olympics and I was shocked when I first found out that it started in 1968. And that's like saying to myself when I first started, "How can something like this start?" Beginning in 1968, there's no way this could have started because people weren't liking each other. How can somebody start like something like this?

And when you look at it, not only was it a revolution for Blacks and Whites, it was a new revolution that was started by one woman. And a couple of people behind her decided that you know what, I'm going to hold these Games.

Who knew it was going to happen? I mean, Chicago was on fire in 1968 and people came together. She brought these people together and they were people with intellectual disabilities. She brought these people together during the time our country was on strike. Who would ever have thought somebody could do that?

Loretta poised with her arms across her chest and holding medals in one hand.

Nealon: You started competing in 1970, tell me about the moment you won your first medal?

Claiborne: I started in a little local program. It was the 50-yard dash with your colleague, or our shelter workshop, kids from Dallas Town school and a couple of other agencies. We had our first Games out on the old center track, which is still there.

I don't think there were 50 athletes. It was funny because they used to have clowns and the clowns used to be on the track and when you ran. They had huggers, so each person had a hugger. When you finished your race, someone was there with their arms stretched out, hugging you.

It was a small event, but it was big to us as athletes and we had to wait 364 more days for that to come again. That was my first experience and back then, they didn't have medals; they had ribbons. You always wanted to win ribbons.

Nealon: Three years ago, in an article, you referred to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and how his message and Eunice Kennedy Shriver's message related, can you talk about that and what that means to you?

Claiborne: You know, Mrs. Shriver and Martin Luther King, I don't know if they knew each other. I couldn't tell you that, but they both had the same mission—to bring people together. She had a mission that these people are not brought into society. And when you look now, the institutions are closed and now people are out there working, or people are living on their own.

Eunice Kennedy fought for equal rights of people with intellectual disabilities. People think that Martin Luther King just fought for Black people. He fought for people in general to have the same equal rights. His main thing was to fight for Black people, but he also fought for those who were poor and those who were treated, second class. If you listen to his speech, I Have a Dream you'll notice that and he said in the speech about the character; I want to show my character.

They show their character that they care about people, in general, will be a part of society.

Nealon: With the world so divided right now, why is it so important to have conversations about race?

I think it's very important to have that conversation. I watched George Floyd's funeral and when they took the casket out of the church, they were marching with the casket and I just stood there and broke out in tears. Here I'm on my little couch and I'm sitting there in tears.

I ask myself, why does something like this have to happen?

Loretta speaking on stage.

In the second half of our conversation, Loretta Claiborne asked me some similar questions to share my perspective.

RJ Nealon giving a speech on stage standing behind a podium.

Claiborne: What have your experiences as a Special Olympics athlete taught you about inclusion and showing no division?

Nealon: Having been a part of Special Olympics now for nearly two decades, I have learned so much. Special Olympics has taught me that the power of sport goes far beyond just the competition. And sometimes, athletes have a more significant impact off the playing surface than they do on it.

Special Olympics strives for inclusion in so many ways. It gives athletes like me a platform to share our voices. In 2020, it is remarkable to watch athletes use their voices to change the world. It shows the impact sports have on the world. Special Olympics is about sports, health, education and so much more.

Claiborne: What difficulties did you have as a person with an intellectual disability while attending the University of Alabama?

Nealon: Attending the University of Alabama was a dream come true and in the three and a half years I spent in Tuscaloosa, I learned so much. It was hard having an intellectual disability, but with the help of the office of disability services, I could get the accommodations I needed.

It was my first time living away from home and I was states away from Maryland. I had to learn how to do so many things independently, but I am glad I did. Attending a school like Alabama, for what I studied, was a no-brainer.

I hope my experiences can inspire other people with intellectual disabilities to go out and attend school. It is all about finding the right fit and a school that is willing to go above and beyond to see you succeed.

RJ graduating on stage receiving his diploma.

Claiborne: Going to school in the south, especially Alabama, what racial inequities did you see?

Nealon: Alabama and the University of Alabama do not have the best history. There was a time when Governor Wallace stood in front of the doors and wouldn't let Black students into the school. But since then, the school has come a long way.

There are six buildings on campus right now that are named after Confederate Army soldiers or slave owners being renamed. The school took out five monuments and several plaques.

Each year, we see change and although Alabama is a long way from real change, it is a step in the right direction. I could not be prouder to be alumni of, in my opinion, the greatest school.

Claiborne: In light of George Floyd's death, what are your thoughts on what's going on in the world?

Nealon: The world is a crazy place right now. I think we all need to come together to make a change. From my perspective, as a white person, I understand that I will never understand, but I know that I need to be more educated. I need to listen more and have uncomfortable conversations so we can move forward as a human race.

And seeing people the last several months do that, I think we will become even stronger.

RJ Nealon in a blue polo.

Claiborne: Being a journalist, what can you do to help people's voices be heard?

Nealon: As a journalist, you know, I look at things differently. I look at things from a deeper perspective and look at it from different angles to put together a story. I love being a journalist because I get to give a voice to somebody that does not have a voice. And I think that's more important now than ever before.

You see, sports journalists; you see different types of journalists focus on the recent events happening throughout the country. But I also think it's important to tell the whole story; getting multiple people to share their stories is essential.

I think that's how I can impact racial injustice and current events in the world. I am the most impactful with my words.

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