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R.Reese, Cal Poly Pomona, Journal of African American Men (volume 4, number 3, Spring, 1999)



The movement to integrate sport and the movement to integrate society in America were two separate phenomena. Although the two movements coincided, each was based on a different a different philosophy. This paper will trace the development of the integration of sport by looking at the socio-political context in which this development occurred. This paper will also identify the factors that eventually lead to the full integration of sport in America.

Historians refer to the Civil Rights Movement as the social movement that began in the U.S. in 1955-1956. It started with the Montgomery bus boycott which was prompted by Rosa Parks' refusal to sit on the back of a Montgomery city bus. However, the struggle for civil rights in the U.S. began long before the Civil Rights Movement. The roots of civil rights in the U.S. began with the anti-slavery movement and was manifested in the Civil War. Before the Civil War the concept of civil rights was something that the U.S. espoused only in a philosophical context (Kelman, 1996, p.256).

Immediately following the Civil War the U.S. attempted to put its and the egalitarian principles of democracy into practice. During the period of Radical Reconstruction in the South (1866-1877) blacks had an unprecedented degree of political access. Indeed, blacks sat in political offices on the national, state, and local levels (Trefousse, 1971, p.58). The first Civil Rights Act was passed in 1866. This act guaranteed all person, nonwhites and noncitizens, the same legal rights as white citizens (Tompkins, 1995, p.132).

Efforts to democratize American society continued with the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (1868). This amendment contained the “equal protection clause,” a clause prohibiting states from depriving any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, or from denying any person of the equal protection of the laws (Tompkins, 1995, p.132). Furthermore, with the Civil Rights Act of 1875 congress attempted to uphold America's creed of democracy and equality by legislating equal treatment in public facilities e.g. public transportation, theaters, hotels, and restaurants. However, in 1883 the courts ironically declared this Civil Rights Act unconstitutional (Dye, 1995, p.47).

Most of the progress made towards civil rights between 1866 and 1876 quickly evaporated with the 1877 presidential election of Rutherford B. Hayes. Southerners pledged their support for Hayes only after they were guaranteed the termination of radical reconstruction, which was a form of martial law imposed on the southern states by the North (Blumberg, 1984, p.6). Although Samuel J. Tilden won more popular votes than Hayes, Hayes prevailed in this controversial election. The North had officially reneged on its promise to rearrange Southern society so that it would be representative of America's egalitarian creed (Myrdal, 1962, p.88; Dye, 1995, p.47).

Although the election of Hayes and the advent of terrorist organizations such as the Klu Klux Klan solidified segregation in the South, the ruling in the1896 landmark court case Plessy vs. Ferguson legalized strict segregation in the South. “Jim Crow” laws separating blacks from whites further perpetuated segregation in the South (Blumberg, 1984, p.6). The Supreme Court inverted the interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment stating that the amendment's “equal protection of the law” clause did not prevent state-enforced separation of races (Dye, 1995, p.47; Tompkins, 1995, p.132). In short, the Supreme Court's interpretation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment in Plessy v. Ferguson stated:

The object of the [14th] Amendment was undoubtedly to
enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law,
but in the nature of things it could not have been intended to
abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social,
as distinguished from political, equality, or a commingling of
the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either. Laws
permitting, and even requiring, their separation in places where
they are liable to be brought into contact do not necessarily
imply inferiority of either race to the other...(Dye, 1995, p.47).

It took American society (the Supreme Court) 58 years to realize the “separate but equal” clause was unjust, unconstitutional, and undemocratic. In the historic 1954 Brown v. Topeka Board of Education case, the Supreme Court ruled public school segregation unconstitutional (Dye, 1995, p.48). This decision along with the Rosa Parks experience was the impetus for the “Civil Rights Movement.” The Montgomery bus boycott movement, sit-ins, and various other protests effectively precipitated social change (Kelman, 1996, p.256).

According to Thomas E. Foreman (1957), in the post civil war era, the segregation of organized sports in America was not a declaration of the law. Segregation during this period was more of a “gentleman's agreement.” Two of the most popular sports during this era were baseball and boxing. No Negro was allowed to participate in organized professional league baseball from 1890-1946. With the exception of a seven year period between 1908-1915, no Negro was allowed to contest for the heavyweight boxing title (p.1).

Pre-1890 professional baseball did feature a few blacks. In 1872, John W. “Bud” Fowler was the first black to be salaried in organized baseball. He signed on with an all white team in New Castle, Pennsylvania (Rust, 1985, p.3). In the early 1880's there were approximately twenty Negroes on minor league teams and two on a major league team (Foreman, 1957, p.8). In 1884, Moses Fleetwood “Fleet” Walker became the first black major leaguer. His brother, Welday Walker, became the second major leaguer in July of the same year. Although these two well educated players seem to get along well with their teammates, they were consistently antagonized by the other teams and their fans (Rust and Rust, 1985, p.4).

It was Fleet Walker's traumatic experiences as the first black major leaguer that inspired him to write the book, Our Home Colony—A Treatise on Past, Present and Future of the Negro Race in America. In this book, Walker advocates the segregation of the races. He suggests that the only way the Negroes could deal with the insidious and pervasive racial prejudices in the U.S. was to return to Africa—echoing the views of the black separatist Marcus Garvey. Walker's adamant stance coupled with other forces prompted the segregation of organized professional baseball (Rust and Rust, 1985, p.5).

Adrian “Cap” Anson, manager and first baseman of the Chicago White Stockings was the driving force behind ousting blacks out of organized professional baseball. He hated blacks with a passion and vehemently opposed them playing on white teams. He was successful in his quest and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania dropped the last Negro players from their professional roster in 1890 (Foreman, 1957, pp. 8,9).

Booker T. Washington, the prominent black educator, intellectual, and spokesman, was the most influential voice of blacks during the 1890's. Washington's message of racial separatism was captured in his notable 1895 Atlanta Compromise Speech. It was in this speech that Washington stated that the races could be “In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress” (Rust and Rust, 1985, p.9; Andrews, 1996). In this speech Washington called for blacks to end demands of social and political equality and stress what was essentially important, economic self-sufficiency (Foreman, 1957, p.2). The forces of Booker T. Washington, “Cap” Anson, Fleet Walker, and the ruling of Plessy vs. Ferguson solidified segregation in most organized sports for a half century (Rust and Rust, 1985, p.9).

According to E. Franklin Frazier (1968), the development of sociological theory during the turn of the century made the idea of segregation in society palatable. Sociologists suggested that "the Negro was primarily a social problem and would remain a social problem because he could not be assimilated...he has a `racial' temperament and his `shiftlessness and sensuality' are partly due to heredity and that he is inferior in his adaptiveness to a complex civilization" (p.34).

During the early 1900's Social Darwinism was also gaining acceptance among a guilt-ridden society eager to rationalize their racist and prejudice feelings. According to Darwin's theory "the Negro race is said to be several hundreds or thousands of years behind the white man in development.. Culture is then assumed to be an accumulated mass of memories in the race, transmitted through genes.A definite biological ceiling is usually provided: the mind of the Negro race cannot be improved beyond a given level" (Myrdal, 1962, p.99).

Three of the most prominent black athletes of the first half of the twentieth century were Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, and Jesse Owens. These three individuals had an enormous impact on race relations in America. However, the comparison of Jack Johnson's and Joe Louis's effect on race relations is the most striking.

Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion, he held the heavyweight title for seven years before losing it Jess Willard in Cuba in 1915. Johnson had a profound effect on race relations. His flamboyant personality and his incessant appetite for confrontation and white women ultimately led to his demise. Johnson married three white women and had numerous affairs with others. He was fearless and had little respect for the conventions of the day (Wiggins, 1993, p.27).

It was this behavior that earned him the name “Bad Nigger.” A Bad Nigger, in black folklore, was a black man who did not play by the rules of convention; they dressed well and had unquenchable sex drives. They lived hedonistic lifestyles with a blatant disregard for death or danger. The term was used a badge of reverence among blacks (Roberts, 1983, p69).

In December of 1908, Johnson beat Tommy Burns in Sydney, Australia for the heavy weigh title. In 1910, he beat former heavyweight champion, Jim Jeffries so badly that it humiliated whites. Not only did he beat him, but he taunted him and rubbed in the face of white Americans. Race riots ensued all over America as a result of this event (Rust and Rust, 1985, p.147).

Because of Johnson's arrogance and love for white women, many whites considered him a serious threat to racial order. After Johnson married Lucille Cameron (a white woman), two ministers in the South recommended lynching him (Gilmore, 1975, p.107). In a reaction to the Johnson-Cameron marriage, in 1911 Rep. Seaborn Roddenberry of Georgia introduced a constitutional amendment to ban interracial marriages. In his appeal to congress, Roddenberry stated that

"Intermarriage between whites and blacks is repulsive and averse to every sentiment of pure American spirit. It is abhorrent and repugnant. It is subversive to social peace. It is destructive of moral supremacy, and ultimately this slavery to black beasts will bring this nation to a fatal conflict" (Gilmore, 1975, p.108).

Influenced by Roddenberry and others, miscegenation bills were introduced in 1913 in half of the twenty states where this law did not exist.

Many blacks were lynched as result of the actions of Johnson. Some suggest that Johnson's brazen and sometimes reckless behavior did a tremendous amount of damage to race relations in America. Booker T. Washington detested Johnson's self-centered lifestyle stating that “Johnson's actions had injured his race and his personal rebellion would result in a more general racial oppression” (Roberts, 1983, p.149).

Johnson was eventually convicted of violating the Mann Act. He was guilty of transporting a white woman over state lines. After his planned fall to Willard, he returned to the U.S. to serve all but a few days of his jail sentence in Leavenworth, Kansas (Wiggins, 1993, p. 27). Roberts captures the essence of Jack Johnson's character and legacy when he states,

"The real Jack Johnson was not a stereotype. His hatred of the white world was almost as deep as his longing to be part of it. Although he was admired by thousands of blacks during his own day, he refused to accept the responsibility of leadership...On only one point was Johnson consistent throughout his life: he accepted no limitations. He was not bound by custom, background, or race" (Roberts, 1983, p.229).

Jack Johnson had such a negative effect on race relations that many who followed used him as reference of what not to do or how not to behave. Louis learned from the mistakes of Johnson. According to Roberts (1993), Louis directed his sexual energies only toward black women, he did not challenge the conventions of the day as Johnson had done, and he was a man of few words—dignified and respectful (p.24). Louis was the antithesis of Johnson. He was a mild-mannered hero who took pride in being a role model for blacks during his era. Two of Louis's managers, John Roxborough and Julian Black, realized his potential and began to tutor him on social etiquette. Early in Louis's career, they saw he had the potential of a champion and they wanted his behavior to reflect that of a champion both in and out of the boxing ring (Rust and Rust, 1985, pp. 158, 159). Because of his nonthreatening demeanor, Louis also became popular among whites (Rust and Rust, 1978).

Louis did proved to be a great champion and role model for all Americans. After he won the heavyweight championship, he successfully defended his title an unprecedented twenty five times (Rust and Rust, 1978). However, a low point in Louis boxing career and for the blacks who vicariously lived through his fights, came on June 19, 1936. Louis lost a bout to Max Schmeling in Madison Square Garden in the twelfth round. It was hailed as a victory of Nazi Germany and symbolic of Aryan superiority (Jones and Washington, 1972, p.75; Rust and Rust, 1978). Only two months after Schmeling's defeat of Louis, Nazi boasting of Aryan superiority was interrupted by Jesse Owens in the 1936 Berlin Olympics when he won an unprecedented four gold medals. In the year following the lost to Schmeling Louis won seven consecutive fights leading up to his championship bout against James Braddock. Louis knocked Braddock out in the eighth round to capture the title(Jones and Washington, 1972, p.75). Blacks were euphoric after Louis was crowned the heavyweight champion of the world.

"With the news of the knockout, the crowds that had been waiting beneath radio loudspeakers suddenly were on the move. From all the flats poured young and old, men and women, to shout Joe Louis's fame. Taxicabs screeched down the street with tooting horns...Bonfires were built in the streets and around them Negroes danced" (Rust and Rust, 1985, p.170).

He defended his title three times before a rematch bout with Schmeling. The rematch was a symbolic war between America and Nazi Germany—so much so that President Franklin D. Roosevelt invited Louis to the White House and said “Joe we're depending on those muscles for America” (Rust and Rust, 1978, p.137). In June of 1938, Louis fought a rematch against Schmeling; Louis avenged his earlier lost with a bout that lasted only 124 seconds. Louis dominated Schmeling, hitting him forty-one times and sending him to the hospital (Jones and Washington, 1972, p.76). Indeed this time, it was a victory for all Americans. According to Rust and Rust (1985), Joe Louis's greatness was "not just because of the hope that he offered the black man but his public image of a clean-living, God-fearing, decent man who could conquer the incumbent forces was an inspiration to the depression-weary whites as well. Joe Louis transcended race and became a hero to all people" (p.171).

Joe Louis did not transcend race solely because of his great skills as a pugilist. Louis transcended race because he was an ideal Negro. Unlike Jack Johnson, he knew his place. Knowing one's place was a prerequisite for white America to lionize a black athlete. As Carter G. Woodson stated (1933): "While he is a part of the body politic, he is in addition to this a member of a particular race to which he must restrict himself in all matters social. While serving his country he must serve within a special group. While being a good American, he must above all things be a good Negro; and to perform this definite function he must learn to stay in a Negro's place "(p.6).

Nevertheless, the success of black athletes such as Joe Louis and Jesse Owens in the mid 1930s provided the backdrop for integration in sport and in American society. As the widely popular Louis emerged as the world heavyweight boxing champion, many whites had to question their prejudices (Tygiel, 1983, p.35). After all, he was an American hero and he was black. Similarly, in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Jesse Owens was not just a black runner from America--he was symbolic of the anti-Hitler sentiment in the world and the source of nationalistic pride in America. When he won four gold medals in the Olympics, all Americans cheered. All Americans beamed with pride. He too, was an American hero (Baker, 1986).

Prior to World War II blacks competed in football, basketball, baseball, and track at white universities. Black athletes such as Paul Robeson of Rutgers, Fritz Pollard of Brown, Eddie Tolan and Willis Ward of Michigan; Jerome “Brud” Holland of Cornell, William Bell, David Albritton, and Jesse Owens of Ohio State; Ralphe Metcalfe of Marquette University; and Ralph Bunch, Jackie Robinson, and Kenny Washington of UCLA were all standouts at non-Southern schools (Wiggins, 1993, p.28; Grundman, 1986, p.77).

Although these carefully picked token athletes were successful in their athletic exploits, they still were ridicule, derided, and mistreated on there college campuses and sometimes by their white teammates. Socially, these athletes lived a life of isolation; they were constantly the objects of discrimination and vicious racial epithets (Wiggins, 1993, p.28; Grundman, 1986, p.77).

Many all white teams, especially in the South, refused to play against integrated teams. In order for competition to proceed, the integrated teams usually gave in to the demands of the all white teams and withheld their black athletes from participating. Integrated teams usually responded to the demands of all white teams by withholding their black players (Foreman, 1957, p.32).

According to Grundman (1986), at the end of World War II college sports started to become more appealing, more glamorous to the general population. This transformation affected university sports. Universities realized that they could capitalize on the growing appeal of university sports by allowing superb black athletes to participate (p.77). Universities in the North experimented with the concept of integration by having one or two black athletes on their teams. For their experiment they chose young men who were not only superb athletes but also good students that possessed unquestioned moral character. Some see this approach as racist, but in fact, this selective approach to integration was extremely effective. Universities in the North chose black athletes, such as Paul Robeson and “Fritz” Pollard to be iconoclast (image-breakers).

These athletes had to counter the rigid stereotypes of blacks that had calcified over a century and a half. University officials had to prove American society wrong. They could not do this with black athletes who were prone to go down the wrong path. Indeed, a black athlete who was a poor student, sexually aggressive, or inclined to commit crimes would have elicited “I told you-so's” from the strict segregationists. On the other hand, a black athlete who represented the opposite gave university officials an opportunity to say “You were wrong.” This was indeed the philosophy of the great baseball integration strategist, Branch Rickey.

Rickey chose Robinson because the former UCLA All American embodied the “total package.” On April 10, 1947, Robinson signed a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers. On April 15, 1947, he became the first black baseball player in modern times to play in a major league baseball game. Robinson endured “racial slurs, fans throwing watermelons and placing shoe shine kits outside of the team's dug out; they likened him to an animal and disparaged his family” (Rust and Rust, 1985, p.60).

Robinson was articulate, educated, disciplined, carefully spoken, and a great athlete. Many black baseball players at the time were just as good as Robinson or even better. In fact, Josh Gibson, Leroy “Satchel” Paige, William “Judy” Jones, James Thomas “Cool Papa” Bell, and Walter “Buck” Leonard could have been the greatest major leaguers ever (Rust and Rust, 1985, pp.18-22). However, athletic greatness was not the sole concern of integrationist, but whether the individual had the character to face character assaults and whether this individual's behavior on and off the field was spotless. A great athlete would not have done anything for integration if his behavior confirmed stereotypes. One can not underestimate the impact that selectivity had on the general perception of American society and the eventual integration of sports.

Many writers at the time wanted Robinson to pattern his personality and demeanor in the form of Joe Louis. Louis received unprecedented popularity among whites. Whites accepted Louis as a folk hero, not only because he was the best boxer in the world, but he appeared to be the “ideal” Negro. He was “polite, well mannered, and knew his place” (Tygiel, 1983, p.75). Integrationists knew that image construction was fundamental to their goals.

Although meticulous efforts to gradually integrate sports in Northern universities proved successful, the South remained polarized. Segregation was a way of life. The South could not forgive the North for the devastation they caused during the Civil War. Because of their rigid hatred of the North, Southern schools did not want to participate in trends being started in the North, especially under the familiar Civil War theme of social integration.

Much of the post Civil War mentality in the South was intimately tied to this event. The tragedy of their grandfathers permeated every aspect of the psyche of Southerners. According the Atlanta Journal Constitution, intraregional football games were battles between Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Louisiana. However, the most emotionally charged wars were fought against Yankees schools such as Yale, Michigan, or Notre Dame. When games were played against these schools, confederate flags would wave wildly and the song “Dixie” would be amplified. Crazed fans would vicariously refight the war (Hinton, Reese, and Davidson,1986, C2).

Georgia Tech vs. Pittsburgh
A poignant example of how the South resisted the gradual process of integration that Northern universities had adopted came in December of 1955. In a Sugar Bowl match-up between Georgia Tech vs. Pittsburgh, the segregationist Governor of Georgia at the time, Marivin Griffin, asked Georgia Tech to reject their bowl bid because Pittsburgh had a black player ( Hinton, Reese, Davidson,1986, C2).

Georgia Tech's President Blake R. Van Leer said that the school would play Pittsburgh whether Bobby Grier played or not. Pittsburgh's Acting Chancellor, Charles Nutting, said that not only would the school use Grier in the Sugar Bowl game, but they would also allow him to stay in the same residence of his white teammates (Foreman, 1957, p.33). According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Bobby Dodd, Georgia Tech's coach, asked for, and got the permission from his players and school administrators to accept the bid. However, Dodd had to make this idea palatable to the segregationist politicians and their constituencies (Hinton, Reese, Davidson, 1986, C2).

Dodd contacted Governor Griffin. Dodd's response to the Governor was, “He told me, `Bobby, I can't come out publicly and support this. But you go ahead and do it. I'll be in New Orleans watching.' ” While contemplating whether to support the Negro's participation, Georgia Tech students staged a demonstration against the governor and hanged him in effigy (Foreman, 1957, p.33). In the end, not only did Griffin fail to support the team, he publicly denounced Tech's appearance in the Sugar Bowl. Many politicians and sports aficionados of the South saw Dodd as a traitor (Hinton, Reese Davidson 1986, C2).

In the end, Tech accepted the bowl bid and went on to beat Pittsburgh 7-0. They won on a pass interference call on the black player. A liberal Princeton student who attended the game commented that the elation and jubilation that Tech fans expressed as a result of the black players mistake made him sick to his stomach (Hinton, Reese, Davidson, 1986, p.C7).

After the Sugar Bowl game, Louisiana State legislators initiated a bill that would prohibit Louisiana colleges from competing against any school that fielded Negro players. Many universities immediately reacted to this bill. Pittsburgh University withdrew from acceptance of any future Sugar Bowls; Notre Dame, St. Louis University, and Daytona University, withdrew from the Sugar Bowl basketball tournament; a basketball game between Marquette University of Milwaukee and Loyola University of New Orleans was canceled; Wisconsin University officials unofficially stated that the bill would probably lead to their cancellation of the football series between Wisconsin and Louisiana State (Foreman, 1957, p.36). The years immediately after the 1954 Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education Supreme court decision, Southern schools had a passionate defiance to uphold the custom of “Jim Crow” and segregation (Rust and Rust, 1985, p.240).

The 1955 Junior Rose Bowl Game in Pasadena pitted Jones Junior College of Mississippi against Compton College of California. Several Mississippi legislators attempted to preempt the game upon hearing that Compton College had several Negro players. After the game against Compton College, Mississippi legislators introduce bills that would disallow Mississippi colleges to compete against teams who fielded Negro athletes (Foreman, 1957, p.34).

By the early 1960's Southern teams gradually eased the rigid embrace of “Jim Crow.” Darryl Hill of the University of Maryland broke the Atlantic Coast Conference's (ACC) color line in 1963. In 1965, basketball player James Cash, became the first black basketball player in the Southwestern Conference (SWC) (Wiggins, 1993, p.35). The Southeastern Conference (SEC) was the last conference to integrate. A bastion of fierce competition and equally fierce racism, the SEC did not begin the integration process until the University of Kentucky football team signed Nat Northington and Greg Page in 1966. The last school in the SEC to integrate was the University of Mississippi in 1971 (Wiggins, 1993, p.36).

On the evening of September 12, 1970, Sam “The Bam” Cunningham, an All American running back at the University of Southern California scored three touchdowns and embarrassed legandary coach Bear Bryant's all white defensive unit as he helped catapult USC to a 42-21 victory over Alabama. Bryant realized after this experience that he needed black athletes on his team to win (Hinton, Reese, Davidson, 1986, p.C7).

Until the late 1960s, many black athletes had been effectively socialized to be nonpolitical. The period around 1968—1972 was the only period in American sport history that blacks were outwardly committed to the struggle for black liberation and equality. During 1968 protests by black athletes were widespread. The activism of these black athletes reflected the socio-political environment of the era. According to Harry Edwards (1969), the black athlete revolt was a culmination of the extreme hatred and injustice in America, manifested in the murder of Malcolm X, the bombing of four black girls in Birmingham Alabama, the murder of Medgar Evers, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and others (p. xv).

Edwards, along with other activists, orchestrated a proposed boycott of the 1968 Olympic Games unless the following demands were met: 1) removal of Avery Brundage as President of International Olympic Committee, 2)restoration of Muhammad Ali's heavyweight title 3)exclusion of Rhodesia and South Africa from Olympic competition, 4) appointment of at least two blacks to the United States Olympic Committee 5) Complete desegregation of the New York Athletic Club (NYAC), and 6) At least two black coaches to the men's Olympic track and field team (Wiggins, 1993, p.37; Edwards, 1969).

Although the proposed Olympic boycott of the 1968 Mexico games failed, black athletes challenged the system like they had never done before nor have they done since. Tommie Smith and John Carlos symbolized the new militancy among athletes when they raised a balled fist--symbolic of black liberation and black power as they accepted their gold and silver medals respectively and listened to the American national anthem (Edwards, 1969, p.138). Black athletes reacted to the unfair practice of racial stacking on the field and monitoring of who they dated off the field. These athletes risk their scholarships by boycotting practices, banquets, and team competitions (Harris, 1993, p.59).

In 1968, black athletes threatened to protest all athletic event at the University of Washington. The football players, accused the head coach Jim Owens, of blatant discrimination. In the same year, Wayne Vandenburg, the coach of the University of Texas, El Paso, dismissed nine track and field athletes from his team for protesting the Mormon Churches' treatment of blacks. Moreover, in 1969 Coach Lloyd Eaton

dismissed fourteen football players from his team because they wanted to protest and draw attention to the Mormon Churches' policies regarding blacks. Fourteen black football players were thrown off the team at Indiana University for missing practice two consecutive days in protest (Wiggins, 1997, p.125). Black athletes were involved in rebellions at Syracuse University, Oregon State University, Michigan State University, San Francisco State University, University of California at Berkeley among other schools (Wiggins, 1993, p.36). At no other time in American sport history have black athletes publicly identified with the struggle and outwardly challenged the system (Wiggins, 1997, p.125).

In many ways the integration of sport has mirrored the socio-political “sign of the times.” Cap Anson's push to oust blacks out of organized professional baseball reflected society's attitudes manifested in the overturning of civil rights legislation and the advent of racist terrorist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. Fleet Walker resonated the separatist philosophy of Marcus Garvey. The accomodationist-separatism espoused by Booker T. Washington couple with the Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson made segregation in sport a natural phenomenon.

Although Jack Johnson was, admittedly, unattached to the struggle for blacks, his heavyweight championship reign coincided with the founding of the Boston Guardian in 1901, a militant black newspaper, founded by Monroe Trotter, the nonpassive activism of W.E.B. Dubois and the Niagara Movement of 1905 and the subsequent founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1910 (Foreman, 1957, p.5). A. Phillip Randolph made Jackie Robinson's way easier by putting pressure on President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the early 1940's to embrace fair employment practices. “If he is good enough for the Navy he is good enough for the majors” was the slogan of protest during this time (Ashe, 1988, p. xv; Pfeffer, 1990).

Furthermore, The 1954 Supreme Court Brown v. Topeka Board of Education decision signified the beginning of gradual change toward the integration of sport. However, the South's immediate reaction to the decision and the idea of integration was reflected in legislative initiatives that barred their white teams from competing with teams that fielded black athletes (Rust and Rust, 1985, p.240; Foreman, 1957, p.36). The militancy of 1960s reflected the uneasiness of the lack of social justice in America. The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the appeal of the Black Panther movement was reflected in the black athlete militancy of the late 1960s.

Some contend the Civil Rights Movement had a significant impact on the integration of sport in the American society. Although the Civil Rights Movement created a conducive environment for social change, it was not the main impetus for the full integration of sport. Other, more salient factors contributed to this development. Money and competition were the two major factors that drove the complete integration of teams. These two elements were inseparable. In order to make money, teams had to successfully compete.

The move to integrate sport and the Civil Rights Movement were, in fact, two uniquely different phenomena. Many schools did not seek to integrate their teams because they agreed with the philosophical principle of integration. However, the foundation of the Civil Rights Movement rested on full integration and equality.

The philosophy of the Civil Rights Movement was to reveal to America the hypocrisies that existed in American society. America was a champion of human rights all around the world but was not a champion of human rights or civil rights in its on backyard. This glaring contradiction was a major cause of dissonance for the government and many people in the U.S. One way by which the government sought to reconcile this contradiction was to integrate society (Reese, 1996, p.85).

According to Rhoda Blumberg (1984), the objective of the Civil Rights Movement was "Integration--the full and equal participation of black people in American Institutions. Ideological support was drawn from the Constitution and the Bill of Rights as well as from precepts of Christianity. The movement challenged the Southern caste system"(p.2).


For a long period of time university athletic programs did not advocate the full and equal participation of black athletes. They started with a few token “well-mannered” superstars. Increasingly, these departments had to evaluate the benefits of playing black athletes against the cost of undermining the social order. Once the barriers were broken and the flood gates were open, having black athletes on the field was a matter of survival. The integration of university sports gradually revolved around business.

While the Civil Rights Movement played on the guilty conscious of America, the initial philosophy of university sports was to use an image construction strategy. They sought to prove that whites were somewhat misguided in their sweeping generalizations of blacks.

Moreover, the blacks that universities had hand-picked to integrate their teams were “ideal Negros.” Of course, some of these athletes like Paul Robeson, grew to become social activist later in life, but during their tenure on white athletic fields they played by the rules. Universities did not adopt the dialectical approach of the Civil Rights Movement.. Instead, they attempted to show that not all blacks were bad and that university sport would benefit from these athletes.

Another major difference between the Civil Rights Movement and the integration of university sport was that the Civil Rights Movement was a proactive movement led by blacks. The integration movement in university sport was not led by blacks but by university administrators, athletic directors, and coaches. These universities felt the pressure of bringing in revenue more than they felt the pressure of the zeitgeist.

Many athletic programs, especially in the South, were faced with a choice between their passion for sports and their passion for racism. People with bitter racial opinions about blacks in general would display great enthusiasm over black athletes on their favorite teams. Sport and the performance of black athletes in the 1960's shamed a lot of people into being racially tolerant.

For a long time, university athletic programs resisted having black athletes on their team because of the pressure they felt to uphold tradition. However, after teams signed black athletes and started to dominate competition, other teams realized that in order to compete they had to become more inclusive. University sports' eventual support of the civil rights movement was not born out of an agreement of ideals, but was born out of the need for the black athlete to maintain competitive programs.



Bad Nigger: These individuals are not necessarily social activists or race conscious; they are not bound by the conventions or customs of the day; they are nonconformists and play by their own rules and are willing to live with the consequences of their actions.

Activists: Individuals, who while they are playing, publicly challenge the system; they publicly confront the racism, exploitation, and hypocrisy that exist in American sport and society.

Race Conscious: Individuals who are respectful of their culture and history. They are not activists but acknowledge their contradictory status as black athletes in America.

Conservatives: Individuals who are nonthreatening to the system; they abstain from expressing opinions regarding the racism, exploitation, and hypocrisy that exist in American sport and society.

Jack Johnson

Mohammed Ali

Mike Tyson

Reggie Jackson

Charles Barkeley

Dennis Rodman

Arthur Ashe

Mohammed Ali

Curt Flood

Jim Brown

Bill Russell

Tommie Smith

John Carlos

Jackie Robinson

Ahmad Rashad

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Wilt Chamberlin

Doug Williams

Joe Louis

Willie Mays

O.J. Simpson

Herschel Walker

Evander Holyfield

Marcus Allen

Michael Jordan

These categories are descriptive for the purposes of this paper. Although many black athletes were pragmatic about their activism while they played, many became vocal activists after their athletic careers e.g. Paul Robeson, Jackie Robinson, Don Newcombe, Hank Aaron. Robeson was probably the most articulate and outspoken of all the great black athletes. However, his activism did not pique until well after his playing career had ended.

Notwithstanding the courageous athletes who participated in the black athlete revolts of the late 1960s and the early 1970s, there are few black athletes that one could place in the categories of “activists” or “race conscious.” This is troubling. Although black athletes have saturated the major sports such as football and basketball on every level, their status has been limited to that of the entertainer. The system has effectively socialized the black athlete to be politically unconscious and docile. What Carter G. Woodson stated in 1933 in The Mis-Education of the Negro has been accurate for most of the century:

"When you control a man's thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his 'proper place' and will stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back of the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door, he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary (back coverpage).

I was a standout defensive back at Vanderbilt University in the mid 1980s. I played in the annual Blue Gray All Star game and was invited to the annual NFL Combine Camp. Although I would not consider myself an activist at the time that I played, I was race conscious.

I remember the day before the 1989 Blue Gray All Star game; the athletes from both teams signed footballs and took pictures with the Montgomery Kiwanis Club and their families. These, mostly white fans, were elated to get a chance to meet us. As we were bussed back to the hotel, I saw blacks on the streets and I wondered how the Kiwanis Club members would have treated these individuals. I was sitting right next to Shannon Sharpe, the standout tight end for the Denver Broncos; I wondered if he was just as aware of our contradictory status as I was.

Very few of the athletes that I played with had any conception of the strides that black athletes had made before them. Although they may have heard of Jackie Robinson, they did not know of athletes such as Paul Robeson, Fritz Pollard, or Curt Flood, nor were they conscious of the development of the Civil Rights Movement.

My father, Earnest Reese, was one the first black sports journalist to write for a major newspaper in the South, the Atlanta Journal Constitution, we discussed the aforementioned typology. We tried to come up with more names to fit into the activists and race conscious categories. We could not--which suggests that today's black athlete has been successfully imprisoned by the “play hard--be politically docile--and don't challenge the system” paradigm.



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