In commemoration of Black History Month, it’s important to remember the contributions of black athletes in furthering the American Civil Rights Movement. During the long and grueling quest for equal rights in America, civil rights organizations (such as the NAACP), the black press, and others took pride in the individual accomplishments of African American athletes. The influence of these athletes, along with their successful integration into sports, was used as leverage to demand greater rights. With a traveling stage and national appeal, sports also gave rise to powerful athletes who used their talents to fight for black equality. Beyond the bright lights of any arena, these and other athletes fought for a victory that would extend well beyond any box score or stat sheet.
5. Muhammad Ali: Heavyweight Boxing Champion
Muhammad Ali, heavyweight boxing champion in the 1960s and 1970s, was exposed to a culture of racial inequality that significantly impacted his life. When Ali won the gold medal for boxing in the 1960 Olympics in Rome, he returned home to Louisville with great pride. He wore his medal everywhere. He was sure that his success in the Olympics would allow him to live without racial prejudice and segregation at home. Shortly after returning from the Olympics, and with his gold medal on prideful display, Ali and his friend decided to dine in a restaurant downtown. Ali’s joy was soon dissipated as he and his friend were refused service at the restaurant because they were black. He was devastated to realize that his medal, once a symbol of greater liberty and promise, didn’t garner him the respect he deserved. Ali’s athletic experiences both opened his eyes to the grim reality of racial inequality in the United States and allowed him to make a difference in the fight for meaningful change.
While traveling for a boxing tournament, Ali first heard about the Nation of Islam, a group he later joined to promote black pride and racial equality. During the years surrounding the Vietnam War, Ali traveled and gave many lectures on college campuses, where most of his audiences were white. He addressed, among other themes, black pride and the need to end racial injustice. Ali affirmed that his fights, attitudes, and behaviors were meant to give people a sense of racial pride. Ali’s triumph in the ring paved the way for his success in the greater fight for civil rights.
4. Bill Russell: Eleven-time NBA Champion
Bill Russell, a member of the Boston Celtics from 1956-1969, was a very popular and successful athlete. In fact, he is often regarded as the greatest winner in sports. While Russell accumulated 11 NBA championships on the court, he was never far from the cultural battle that was occurring off the court. As a college athlete, Russell was invited to play on the U.S. Olympic basketball team and was also asked to travel to the White House to participate in a physical fitness meeting. After this visit to Washington, he and his family decided to visit relatives in Louisiana. Despite his recent athletic honors, he remarked how in the Deep South he was just another black boy with no rights. Russell, in his book Go up for Glory, commented about this experience. He said, “for the first time as an adult I came to understand an issue I will fight for the rest of my life… It made an impression. A deep one.” Russell recounts the hypocrisy he witnessed during the 1956 Melbourne/Stockholm Olympics, where he was asked to represent his country knowing that, at home, many viewed him as a second-class citizen. Russell experienced, first-hand, a double standard in America and he was determined to do something about it.
On one occasion, after arriving in Indiana, Russell’s team was warmly greeted by the local mayor and even given the keys to the city. That night, Russell and two of his teammates, one of whom was black, went to a restaurant to eat. In a racially motivated act, restaurant workers turned Russell and his teammates away. Refusing to accept such treatment, Russell and friends approached the Mayor and filed a compliant. In response, the Mayor determined that the restaurant’s actions were against the law.
In another instance, in 1958, Russell refused to go on tour for exhibition games because they would have required segregated sleeping arrangements. Russell’s anti-segregation efforts had far reaching influence. In cooperation with the brother of a murdered civil rights leader, Medgar Evans, Russell agreed to conduct interracial basketball clinics for both black and white children in Mississippi. He also participated in the March on Washington and even helped raise money for the NAACP. The racial discriminatory practices he witnessed as he traveled for basketball, combined with the success he experienced as an athlete, put Russell in a position to make a difference in advancing equality for African Americans.
3. Arthur Ashe: No. 1 Ranked Tennis Player
Arthur Ashe, African American tennis champion, also experienced racial discrimination through his sports experiences. While still a young boy in school, he grew tired of playing uncompetitive tennis on the segregated courts of his neighborhood. So, he traveled to another part of town in search of better matches. When he arrived at Grant Park, a court for whites, he was confronted and denied access to the courts.
While still a young boy, Ashe had a similarly difficult experience with segregation. After playing in a tournament in his hometown in Virginia, some of the white competitors invited Ashe to the movies. He reluctantly went. When it was Ashe’s turn to buy his movie ticket, he was told that the movie was sold out. These experiences exposed Ashe to the sting of racial injustice. These and other incidents of racial discrimination would later serve as powerful reminders as he undertook efforts to fight racist practices. Although he was not particularly involved in the American Civil Rights Movement, Ashe used his prominence to promote equality in South Africa.
Ashe had the opportunity to visit South Africa a number of times for tennis in the 1970s. South Africa was a nation racked with racial violence and segregation, a practice known as apartheid. The stark segregation he witnessed elicited haunting memories of his own childhood experiences with segregation. So, beginning in the early 1970s, Ashe actively fought to end apartheid. He favored international sanctions against the country and he helped ban the country from major tennis tournaments. Ashe was involved in several other organizations and movements which contributed to the successful elimination of apartheid; he assisted in creating Artists and Athletes Against Apartheid, which helped enforce UN sanctions against the country, and he was an important member of TransAfrica, a think tank and lobbyist organization for the benefit of African and Caribbean affairs. In 1985, Ashe was even arrested as part of an extensive protest outside the South African embassy in Washington D.C.
2. & 1: Tommie Smith and John Carlos: Olympic Medalists
The famous protests of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics serve as a clear and vivid reminder of the power of sports in the Civil Rights Movement. African American Tommie Smith was the gold-medal winner in the 1968 Olympics’ 200-meter run, while fellow African American John Carlos was the bronze-medal winner in that same competition. With medals hanging proudly form their necks, these two men stood on their podiums during the Olympic awards ceremony and performed a podium salute; they wore black gloves and raised their hands in the air, representing black power and black unity in America. Smith’s black scarf stood for black pride, and the black socks with no shoes symbolized black poverty in racist America. This salute was performed in an effort to raise black consciousness and to protest the racial practices toward black Americans. The salute was also an interracial stand for human rights. Tommie Smith recognized that sports had allowed him to make a statement for equal rights. He stated, “I needed to be in a position to do [the salute], which meant the victory stand.” Through their athletic successes, Smith and Carlos courageously raised race consciousness all around the world.