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 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.
FOOTBALL February 6, 2011 The Green Bay Packers defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers 31-25 in Super Bowl XLV. Packers quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, launched 3 touchdowns and completed 24 of 39 passes to win the game MVP. His counterpart, Ben Roethlisberger, hurled 2 touchdowns and 2 interceptions, one of which resulted in a 37-yard running score against Pittsburgh. It was the 4th SB victory for Green Bay, the NFL’s first champions dating back to the 1966 season.
BASKETBALL February 11, 2001 The NBA holds its 50th All-Star game at the MCI Center in Washington, DC. Allen Iverson picked up the MVP after rallying the Eastern Conference to defeat the West in a narrow 111-110 game. Vince Carter (Toronto Raptors) and Iverson (Philadelphia 76ers) topped the highest number of selection votes from the East, while Shaquille O’Neal (Los Angeles Lakers) and Kobe Bryant (Los Angeles Lakers) were most popular in the West.
BASEBALL February 4, 1991 The Board of Directors at the Baseball Hall of Fame votes 12-0 to bar Pete Rose from being inducted. Due to his past gambling activities around the game, both as player and manager, Rose continues to be kept out of the prestigious institution. Playing for and managing the Cincinnati Reds from 1963-1989, Rose was a 17x All-Star and 3x World Series champion. In his playing career he batted .303, hit 4,256, and had RBI of 1,413.
MOTOR SPORTS February 15, 1981 Rich Petty wins the 23rd annual running of the Daytona 500. Rounding the 200-lap chase in just under 2 hours and 57 minutes, Petty beat Bobby Allison by 3½ seconds and brought out Buick’s first NASCAR win since 1956. It was the 7th and last Daytona 500 victory for the North Carolina native who still holds the record for most wins at the famed track. Petty is tied with Jimmy Johnson and Dale Earnhardt for the NASCAR series (7x).