Black Athletes, Black Activists

Today the 2018 Winter Olympics kick off in Pyeongchang, South Korea. With a US president who has gone out of his way to attack black athletes and Black Lives ...

Today the 2018 Winter Olympics kick off in Pyeongchang, South Korea. With a US president who has gone out of his way to attack black athletes and Black Lives Matter, these Games are ripe for athlete activism. Recently, African American Olympic bobsledder Elana Meyers Taylor hinted at Olympians’ coming protests: “I think the hardest thing is that all of us would love to just stick to sports—but if you want us to be role models to kids then you need to stand for more than just sports.”1

After Trump referred to immigrants from Africa as hailing from “shithole countries,” one could hardly blame Maame Biney, Team USA’s 17-year-old Ghana-born speed skater, if she were she to speak out against Trump’s xenophobic blather. The Pyeongchang Games will also feature numerous African Olympians—like Ghana’s skeleton athlete Akwasi Frimpong and the US-based Nigerian bobsled team of Seun Adigun, Akuoma Omeoga, and Ngozi Onwumere—who surely were not enamored of Trump’s racist gobbledygook. Should athletes protest in Pyeongchang, they’d be standing on strong shoulders.

In July 2016, four players on the Minnesota Lynx women’s professional basketball team—Seimone Augustus, Rebekkah Brunson, Maya Moore, and Lindsay Whalen—held a press conference while wearing T-shirts that read, “Change Starts with Us: Justice & Accountability.” Emblazoned on the back of the shirts were the names Philando Castile and Alton Sterling—two African American men shot dead by police—as well as “Dallas Police Department,” which had just lost five officers to gun violence, and “Black Lives Matter.”2

The very next day, players on the New York Liberty, also of the Women’s National Basketball Association, wore Black Lives Matter T-shirts during warm-ups to honor Castile and Sterling. Players from the Indiana Fever and Phoenix Mercury followed suit. When the WNBA fined the players for breaking its uniform policy, they didn’t back down, and eventually the league rescinded the penalties.3

A cascade of athlete activism ensued. A few days later, National Basketball Association stars Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, Chris Paul, and Dwyane Wade took the stage at the ESPY Awards and encouraged athletes to engage in social activism.4 Then came Colin Kaepernick standing against racial inequality and police brutality by taking a knee, beginning in August 2016 when he was the quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers of the National Football League.

After Kaepernick was essentially blackballed by the league’s owners, numerous players continued to protest, either by taking a knee or by thrusting a clenched fist skyward during the national anthem. When Donald Trump attacked the players at a rally in Alabama, saying, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now,’” dissent burst across the league, with players taking knees and linking arms, sometimes even with sympathetic team owners.5


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Women athletes have often been erased from the narrative of athlete activism, as they have been in this most recent episode. Press has focused mainly on the NBA and NFL players’ demonstrations and the president’s macho venom. Historian Louis Moore does not make that mistake in We Will Win the Day: The Civil Rights Movement, the Black Athlete, and the Quest for Equality, a meticulously researched book that examines how African American athletes have used sport to fight for equality, focusing on the period between 1945 and 1968.

Moore traces how discourse shifted from African American athletes in the 1940s as evidence of “democracy in action” to the fist-in-the-air “revolt of the black athlete” in the 1960s. In this exploration, Moore foregrounds groundbreaking tennis star Althea Gibson and Olympic gold medal–winning sprinter Wilma Rudolph. Gibson and Rudolph each exemplify one of the two paths historically taken by African American athlete activists. Gibson sought to inspire her country’s equal treatment through athletic achievement and symbolic representation; Rudolph’s vocal direct action confronted inequality and sought power in collective political protest.

Elana Meyers Taylor’s comment that modeling excellence for young people also requires demonstrating for equality explodes the notion that one must choose between the two paths. Instead, we should see the ongoing tension between them as defining the complexity of athlete activism itself, with each path kindling divergent arguments, tactics, and strategies. The persistent narrative of their irreconcilability represents a deeper friction in the struggle for political and social recognition in America, which Moore explores through sports in We Will Win the Day.

Demonstrations of African American athletic achievement can either vindicate or indict American notions of equality, and indeed these ideas were often argued over in the black press. Drawing on reporters’ accounts and columnists’ commentaries from African American newspapers, Moore makes the case that, together, black journalists and athletes forged a space for political struggle in the sports arena, and African American women athletes played a central role.

Most people are familiar with Jackie Robinson’s remarkable shattering of the color barrier in baseball to become the first African American to play in the major leagues. In 1947, the same year that Robinson made his debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Althea Gibson was establishing her dominance on the tennis circuit, winning the first of 10 straight national titles in the American Tennis Association. The period culminated with her victory at Wimbledon in 1957, considered the greatest of her five Grand Slam singles titles. Moore writes, “Gibson’s story is the most unlikely tale in sports history.” After all, she overcame the trifecta of shoddy odds as an African American woman from poverty in a world where “poor black women were not supposed to have access to the tennis courts,” let alone rule them.

The tennis world was in fact among the least hospitable to integration, and the role of her black supporters was crucial to her rise. After qualifying for tennis’s most prestigious tournament, Gibson needed to raise money to travel to Wimbledon in 1951. Moore describes how African Americans across the US contributed. Boxing great Joe Louis purchased her travel fare to England. A black golf club—the Detroit Duffers Golf Association—also made a generous donation. Although Gibson did not win the tournament that year, she knew she had people in her corner.

Gibson’s rise was also partially fueled by Cold War politics. As her career unfolded, the US was locked in a propaganda battle with the Soviet Union. To offset Soviet depictions of racism on the US home front, the federal government sent African American athletes abroad to showcase their freedom and talent. These efforts were meant to supply evidence that recognition came to those of true individual excellence, no matter what their race.

“These acts reeked of hypocrisy,” notes Moore, but Gibson’s participation allowed her to vie against top-shelf competition from around the world, which improved her game. After her tour she won the 1956 French Open and then Wimbledon in 1957. She was celebrated in the US as a paragon of black success and advancement, even as Gibson insisted, “I am not a racially conscious person. I’m a tennis player … I have never set myself up as a champion of the Negro race.”

Elana Meyers Taylor’s assertion that modeling excellence for young people also requires demonstrating for equality explodes the notion that one must choose between the two paths.

Still, Gibson’s actions were integral to what Moore identifies as “a civil rights strategy” whereby “blacks hoped that by persistently fighting for opportunities to participate in sports and proving themselves with their play, athletic acclaim would win the day and bring about equality in society.” Through her athletic prowess, Gibson embodied equality, even if she didn’t punch a fist into the sky demanding it. Her actions were meant to inspire, projecting greater import than the mere thump and volley of the tennis court. In activism that demonstrated democracy in action, symbolism and representation mattered.

Wilma Rudolph also skyrocketed to athletic stardom, along the way writing a rags-to-riches script that would make Horatio Alger quiver with glee. She grew up in poverty in rural Tennessee, suffered the indignities of Jim Crow, and overcame polio en route to winning three gold medals at the 1960 Rome Summer Games. Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon even tried to co-opt her star power, to convert it into black votes in his favor.

Yet, despite all this, she was a second-class citizen in her hometown of Clarkesville, Tennessee, prompting one journalist from the Los Angeles Sentinel to ask, “How is it that our athletes can represent the United States before the world and then have to come home to be treated like dogs?” Unlike Gibson, Rudolph engaged in direct action to fight for the rights of African Americans, protesting at a restaurant in Clarkesville that refused to serve blacks. Her efforts scored swift results: in less than two weeks, city officials desegregated Clarkesville’s restaurants.

We Will Win the Day charts the path of numerous African American athlete activists who, like Wilma Rudolph, aligned their sentiments and their actions in the fight for racial justice, from sports icons like Muhammad Ali and Bill Russell to lesser-known athletes like track star Eroseanna Robinson, who boycotted a state-sponsored US goodwill tour in the Soviet Union because she viewed it as a transparent “political maneuver,” designed to turn her into a Cold War “pawn”, and golf-enthusiast Maggie Hathaway, who successfully fought to integrate courses in Los Angeles.

In tracing these struggles, Moore draws primarily from black newspapers and magazines. According to sociologist Ronald N. Jacobs, the black press served three burning purposes: “to provide a forum for debate and self-improvement,” “to monitor the mainstream press” and point out its deficiencies, and “to increase black visibility in white civil society.”6 We Will Win the Day underlines how black journalists shouldered this tripartite charge.

As it does so, Moore affords us a robust look into a lively community of writers, where disagreement was valued and political positions were test-driven and refined. Through these newspapers, we better understand the stark disagreements between Jackie Robinson and Jesse Owens over black athletes’ strategies to upend Jim Crow. Moore writes, “Robinson believed athletes had to use their platform to exact change, while Owens continued to believe athletic success alone would be enough to fight Jim Crow.” Owens was even known to actively discourage athletes from speaking out or protesting, as when he asked athletes from the Olympic Project for Human Rights to tone down their politics at the 1968 Games, in Mexico City.

Moore stresses how black sportswriters were—and remain—vital voices “persuading athletes to be activists” and pointing up the connections between politics and sports. When a Nobel Prize–winning African American luminary was denied membership at the Westside Tennis Club in Forest Hills, New York, the black press urged Gibson to boycott the segregated club. When she refused, stating that “As long as they treat me as a person and guest, I’ll play,” journalists poured scorn on her, with one writer from the New York Amsterdam News even crossing the line of propriety in an effort to convince her. “I’m so mad at Althea Gibson,” he wrote, “I could break one of her best tennis rackets over [her] head.”

Journalists did not only fire vitriol at athletes, they also protected them from it. When basketball star Lew Alcindor, who eventually became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, said he planned to boycott the 1968 Olympics, many members of the black press had his back, with a Michigan Chronicle editorial asking, “What must become more important to black youth, a few moments of fleeting glory or a self-respect that will last him a life time[?]”


Athlete Activists

By Jules Boykoff

Moore shows how the black press long functioned as a vibrant example of what Nancy Fraser calls “subaltern counterpublics,” vital discursive spaces where communities can formulate and reformulate oppositional ideas, goals, strategies, and tactics.7 When, in 1961, the Houston Informer editorialized that rampant racism in the US aided “Russia to get ahead of the United States in trying to win the minds and hearts of the colored peoples, who make up three-fourths of the population of the world,” the newspaper was floating an argument that became a key strand in the civil rights discursive tapestry. Moore deftly weaves sports struggles into the wider actions and strategies of the civil rights movement, showing how the movement both supported and was stretched by African American athlete activism.

“The sports arena,” writes sociologist Ben Carrington, “operates as an important symbolic space in the struggles of black peoples for freedom and liberty, cultural recognition and civic rights, against the ideologies and practices of white supremacy.”8 Still, divergent models of African American activism continue, and show up again in our current debates. Elana Meyers Taylor identified the weakness of the model that Althea Gibson and Jesse Owens seemed to support. The demonstration of excellence will never be enough. Even Gibson’s own story belies her claim to be only a tennis player. Her rise was fueled by the collective efforts of African Americans around the country and propelled by the politics of the civil rights movement. Today’s athletes must contend with the notion that they should provide simple symbolism. Many of them realize that social change is a great deal more complex. Let the games begin.


This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom. icon

  1. Talya Minsberg, “Might Athlete Protests Reach Podiums at the Winter Olympics?New York Times, September 26, 2017.
  2. Matt Ellentuck, “4 Minneapolis Cops Leave Minnesota Lynx Security Posts after Players Call for Justice and Peace,” SB Nation, July 12, 2016.
  3. Seth Berkman, “Liberty Show Solidarity with Black Lives Matter in Rare Public Stance,” New York Times, July 10, 2016; Tom Ziller and Mike Prada, “The WNBA Has Been at the Forefront of Protesting Racial Injustice,” SB Nation, September 24, 2017.
  4. Nina Mandell, “The Story behind the Powerful Appearance by LeBron, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony at the ESPY Awards,” USA Today, July 14, 2016.
  5. Bryan Armen Graham, “Donald Trump Blasts NFL Anthem Protesters: ‘Get That Son of a Bitch off the Field,’” Guardian, September 23, 2017; Bryan Armen Graham and Martin Pengelly, “NFL Players Kneel for Anthem in Unprecedented Defiance of Trump,” Guardian, September 24, 2017.
  6. Ronald N. Jacobs, Race, Media and the Crisis of Civil Society: From Watts to Rodney King (Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 21.
  7. Nancy Fraser, “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy,” in Habermas and the Public Sphere, edited by Craig Calhoun (MIT Press, 1992), pp. 109–142.
  8. Ben Carrington, Race, Sports, and Politics: The Sporting Black Diaspora (Sage, 2010), p. 55.
Featured image (from left to right): American sprinters Wilma Rudolph, Lucinda Williams, Barbara Jones, and Martha Hudson at the Rome Olympics (1960). Source: Wikimedia Commons