R.Reese, Cal Poly Pomona, Journal of African American Men
(volume 4, number 3, Spring, 1999)
CONTEXT OF THE INTEGRATION OF SPORT IN AMERICA
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
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
they are liable to be brought into contact do not necessarily
imply inferiority of either race to the other...(Dye, 1995,
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).
EARLY INTEGRATION AND SEGREGATION IN SPORT
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
ColonyA 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 Africaechoing 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).
JACK JOHNSON'S EFFECT ON RACE RELATIONS
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
"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).
JOE LOUIS'S EFFECT ON RACE RELATIONS
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
wordsdignified 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
"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 Germanyso 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"
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
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).
EARLY BLACK ATHLETES AT NON-SOUTHERN
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,
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,
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.
JACKIE ROBINSON'S EFFECT ON THE INTEGRATION
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,
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
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
THE INTEGRATION OF TEAMS IN THE SOUTH
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,
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,
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).
1968--PERIOD OF PROTEST
Until the late 1960s, many black athletes had been effectively
socialized to be nonpolitical. The period around 19681972
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;
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,
THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT AND SPORT
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,
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
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
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
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.
TYPOLOGY OF THE BLACK ATHLETE'S
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
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
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
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
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
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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