Friday 5: Athletes and Racial Equality in the 20th Century

As we come to the end of Black History Month (sadly, the shortest month of the year), it is important to look back at some of the most notable figures that sought to end racial inequality for African Americans. Specifically, there are a number of black athletes that, through their unparalleled physical prowess and skill in their chosen sport, as well as their sometimes outspoken political actions, aided the Civil Rights Movement to end centuries of oppression for African Americans – though, of course, there is still discrimination both in sports and society today.

Sport is often dismissed as uncultured and not as redeeming a pursuit as, say, the Arts, or succeeding in business.  However, the popularity of sport among almost all people makes it a stage that can access and affect millions of people, unlike almost any other cultural passion.  These athletes had a profound effect on both their sports – and on American society.

Jackie Robinson was the first African American to play Major League Baseball (MLB).  He broke the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers (now in Los Angeles) in 1947 amid huge controversy over the end of segregation in the sport.  His presence was resented by a still extremely racist country. Players on opposing teams threatened to strike; pitchers intentionally beaned him; his own teammates even threatened to sit out.  Brooklyn Manager Leo Durocher put an end to that debate when he said, “I do not care if the guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a f***ing zebra… He plays.”  Robinson played first base in his first year with the Dodgers, but moved over to his preferred position at second base for the rest of his career, where he was well known as one of the best fielders in the game. He won the inaugural MLB Rookie of the Year and then won Most Valuable Player in 1949, the first African-American player to do so.  He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962. His iconic jersey number, 42, was universally retired by MLB – a first for any professional sport.  In fact, there is a day scheduled every regular season where every player of every team wears number 42. With the Oscars right around the corner, it’s also worth noting that a biopic depicting Jackie Robinson’s life called 42  comes out in April. Breaking the color barrier in America’s most popular pastime is a feat that will not soon be forgotten.

Born Cassius Clay, Muhammad Ali is known as the greatest heavyweight fighter to have ever entered the ring. Though often a lightning rod for controversy around his boxing tactics (his dancing, his taunting, his speed), he only entered the political spotlight after joining the Nation of Islam in 1964.  At the time, Malcolm X was a part of the group and dubbed him Cassius X.  However, the leader of the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad, named Clay ‘Muhammad Ali’, after Malcolm X’s affiliation with both the Nation of Islam and Muhammad Ali ended.  Ali’s membership to the Nation of Islam was controversial in part because the group advocated for separatism between blacks and whites.

DAMIEN_Ali and X

It wasn’t until the Vietnam War, when, on the grounds of religious beliefs, Ali refused to serve if drafted.  This announcement ignited a huge backlash: He was notably stripped of his heavyweight title and banned from boxing for a number of years.  Ali was ahead of the curve in terms of protesting the Vietnam War, and his famous quote – “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Congs” – served as an anthem for later protesters.  Ali’s courage was an inspiration to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his own struggle to voice his opposition to the War, due to his delicate relationship with the Lyndon Johnson administration regarding the ongoing battle of the Civil Rights Movement.  More important than any one position that Ali took was his status as one of the most recognizable and celebrated athletes of his era, if not of the whole 20th century. As a handsome, quick-witted, well-spoken African-American public figure, he was a defining figure in the fight against racial discrimination in the 1960’s.  His public posturing against the war was a notable aspect in the fight against discrimination of the next athletes.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos (pictured top left) were sprinters most well-known for their protest at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. The image of both athletes, Smith having won the 200m with a then-record time of 19.83, and Carlos placing third, on the podium with their raised hands in black leather gloves, is one of the most iconic of the Civil Rights movement. As members of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, they had originally advocated for a boycott of the Games if four conditions weren’t met: 1) South Africa and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) were uninvited; 2) Muhammad Ali to be reinstated as the Heavyweight Champion of the World; 3) Avery Brundage to step down as President of the International Olympic Committee; and 4) for more African Americans to be hired as assistant coaches.

In spite of none of these conditions being met, Smith and Carlos participated in the Games. On the podium, they didn’t wear shoes, but only black socks – symbolizing black poverty. Smith wore a black scarf symbolizing black pride. Carlos unzipped his tracksuit top in a show of solidarity with blue collar workers and wore a necklace of beads in memory of the African Americans who had suffered lynching. Carlos had meant to bring his own pair of gloves but forgot them at the Olympic Village, so Tommie gave him his left glove; this is why each man wears a different glove in the photo.

The backlash was immediate, and many Americans condemned the pair for using the international stage for political protest. In response, Smith said, “If I win, I am American, not a black American. But if I did something bad, then they would say I am a Negro. We are black and are proud of being black.” The International Olympic Committee deemed their protest unfit for the games and they were suspended from the US Team and banned from the Olympic Village. This was in spite of the Committee allowing the Nazi Salute at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, at which our next athlete was a key participant.

DAMIEN_Jesse Owens

The Berlin Olympics in 1936 were seen by Hitler and the Nazis as an opportunity to show Germany’s resurgence since they were crippled at the end of the First World War and to prove their Aryan racial superiority and the baseness of ethnic Africans. Jessie Owens turned that hope on its head when he won four golds – a record at the time – in 100m, 200m, 4x100m relay, and the long jump.  Interestingly, discrimination did not escape the US team, as Owens and fellow African-American sprinter Ralph Metcalfe replaced two Jewish-American runners, Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller, at the behest of the German government. Though the US team denies this, it was thought that Hitler wanted to avoid honoring two Jews on the podium should the Americans win the relay. In spite of this controversy, Jesse Owens was a hero for African Americans as well as runners.  Ironically, though Hitler avoided congratulating Owens on his victory, Owens had much greater freedom in Nazi Germany than he did back in the US, which was still heavily segregated. He is now honored by the Jesse Owens Award, which is the award given to the top American track and field performer.

Here in the 21st century, which athletes will we look back on in 50 years and revere for their abilities on the field, track or court, as well as for their effect on racial equality in America? Tiger Woods, Venus and Serena Williams, Cam Newton, Fritz Pollard, Rutgers Women’s basketball team