Black Sports Figures & Race
A century before Colin Kaepernick knelt down in protest against racial injustice, boxing champ Jack Johnson was flouting the racism of his day by cavorting openly with white women. Black athletes’ historic relationship with white America is complex and as varied as the sportsmen themselves.
Kaepernick’s symbolic gesture on the field wasn’t the first time African-American athletes made use of ceremonial moments to draw attention to their plight.
The 1968 Olympics in Mexico City saw gold and bronze medalists, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, respectively, take the honorary podium with raised fists and bowed heads after winning the 200-meter sprint.
Their “Black Power” salute during the National Anthem invited immediate rebuke from Olympic officials who regarded the act as an unwelcome political statement that ran counter to the spirit of the Games. Smith and Carlos were subsequently expelled from the competitions.
But it was renowned pugilist Muhammad Ali who generated a fiery media storm in 1966 when he refused to be drafted into the military. Having converted to Islam, Ali cited his religious beliefs, racial inequities at home and opposition to the war in Vietnam.
The controversial, trash-talking fighter consequently lost his boxing license and was stripped of his titles; they were reinstated four years later on appeal.
With a few exceptions, most prominent sports figures who reached celebrity status prior to the 1960’s Civil Rights era were less confrontational in public about race.
Jackie Robinson, the first black baseball player to join the major leagues in 1947, was a political independent with conservative views, including on the Vietnam war. He supported Richard Nixon’s 1960 presidential bid against JFK, though years later he would switch allegiance to the Democratic Party.
Carrying a different temperament than Ali, boxing icon Joe Louis volunteered to join the army in World War II despite the military’s segregated policy. His modesty and sportsmanship also won over the media and as a result, white America’s adulation.
“The Brown Bomber” became the first African-American to achieve a widespread hero status. In 1938, weeks before the highly anticipated rematch against Germany’s Max Schmeling, FDR invited Louis to the White House and remarked, “Joe, we need muscles like yours to beat Germany”.
Louis drew hard lessons from Jack Johnson’s experience as a boxer during the height of the Jim Crow racial laws. In 1910, after Johnson floored James Jeffries, dubbed “the great white hope”, riots broke out across the country as angry whites and jubilant blacks confronted each other.
The world’s first black heavyweight champion, Johnson was an early example of a celebrity athlete but he was still widely disdained for beating whites in the ring and scowled for his inappropriate, flashy lifestyle. Defying the racial norms of the time, the Texas-born fighter openly dated white women and even married three of them (photo above with wife Irene).
Jesse Owens, the running star who defeated Hitler’s Aryan supermen at the 1936 Olympics, was aware of his second- class status at home but he was also preoccupied with making a living.
Owens joined the Republican Party and was paid to campaign against FDR at the 1936 presidential elections. In 1968, he refused to support the “Black Power” salute, stating that a black fist only has power if there is money inside. Years later, Owens would revise his opinion.
Personalities, economics and historical circumstances were all part of the complicated relationship between black athletes and their sports.
BASKETBALL February 15, 2009 The NBA holds its 58th annual All-Star game in Phoenix, Arizona. The Western Conference defeats the East 149-119 with Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal sharing the MVP Award. The former received his 15th and final All-Star selection, the second highest in NBA history behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with 19.
FOOTBALL February 16, 1999 O.J. Simpson’s Heisman Trophy is sold for $230,000 to help settle a civil judgement against him for the deaths of his ex-wife and friend. O.J. won the Trophy in 1968 as a running back for USC; he later played for the Buffalo Bills and SF 49ers. His life began to spiral downward in 1994 following murder charges against him.
BASEBALL February 16, 1989 Pitcher Roger Clemens signs a record $7.5 Million, 3-year contract to extend his tenure with the Boston Red Sox. The 11x career All-Star would win the Cy Young Award 7 times, more than any other pitcher, and the World Series twice, in 1999 and 2000 with the NY Yankees. He retired in 2007 with a W/L record of 354/184.
AUTO RACING February 18, 1979 In a race for the ages, Rich Petty wins the Daytona 500 at the NASCAR Winston Cup Series. Trailing in 3rd place towards the end of the chase, the North Carolina native cleared the finish line after Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison, driving 1st and 2nd place cars, collided in the final lap and opened up the win for Petty.