August 13, 2021
Black Athletes
Agents for Change 
Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. after he and a group were arrested for demonstrating without a permit, Selma, Alabama, 1965 (left); and Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the National Anthem with teammate Eric Reid, September 2016 (right)
Recent years have given us a front row seat to the role professional sports play in activating social change. From former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick protesting during the national anthem, to NBA teams refusing to play in response to the killings of George Floyd and others, and two-time Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaki who has used her growing platform to condemn police brutality. These actions come in a long line of African American athletes using their platforms to activate for social change.
Joe Louis knocks out Buddy Baer, Madison Square Garden, New York City, January 9, 1942
For example, there is World Heavyweight Champion Joe Louis. In the 1930s, his athletic prowess and skills captured the hearts and minds of America’s black community. Newspaper columnist Vernon Jarrett (1918 – 2004) shared in his interview for The HistoryMakers: “Joe Louis was our Martin Luther King, our [W.E.B.] DuBois, our Fred Douglass, our everything wrapped into one living physical bit of black supremacy… Or black equality. He was our symbol.”[1][2] Newspaper publishing chief executive Garth Reeves (1919 - 2019) recalled: “Joe Louis came to town, and… he was having a press conference… I went to cover it… as a reporter for Miami Times. And all the white guys… were kind of pushing me... I remember Joe putting his arm around and… said, ‘wait a minute…. let the brother in here.’ That's Joe (laughter).”[3]
Private Joe Louis, 1941 (left) and Lieutenant Jackie Robinson, c. 1940s (right)
In 1942, when Louis was drafted into the U.S. Army, lawyer Truman K. Gibson, Jr. (1912 - 2005), who represented Louis’ manager, recalled: “When he [Louis] went to Fort Bragg, Joe called… He said well, ‘They don't let us on [the busses]…’ So I went to Undersecretary [Robert P.] Patterson… the commanding general… and he issued an order that no facility… would be Jim Crow. So then Joe went to Europe. He said well, ‘the boys can't go into town...’ So I said well, tell General [John C.H.] Lee that. Joe busted three generals [for enforcing segregation] and sent 'em back to the United States.”[4] Louis also helped fellow solider Jackie Robinson when he was denied entry into Officer Candidate School (OCS) because of his race: “Louis was also stationed at Fort Riley [Kansas], and… his status was somewhat higher than that of a raw recruit. Louis investigated the situation and arranged a meeting for black soldiers to voice their grievances… Within a few days… several blacks, including Robinson, were enrolled in OCS.”[5]
Left to right: Bill Spiller, Teddy Rhodes, and Joe Louis on the golf course, c. 1950s
Joe Louis would later use his influence to help integrate another sport—professional golf as insurance executive Gerard Peterson explained: “Joe Louis was a golfer… And integrated golf, helped Charlie Sifford and Ted Rhodes, Bill Spiller and some of the real pioneers get to play.”[6] Louis himself became the first African American to play in a PGA-sponsored event in 1952, and used this to leverage in other pioneering players. The week after Louis broke this barrier, he brought African American golfers Bill Spiller, Eural Clark and Ted Rhodes to the PGA-sponsored Phoenix Open. Together, they helped pave the rather slow path towards the PGA formally removing their segregation clause nine years later.
Left: Jesse Owens (left) and Ralph Metcalfe (right) as collegiate athletes at the Olympics qualifier meet, New York, 1936
Right: Olympic qualifiers (standing, left to right): high jumpers Dave Albritton and Cornelius Johnson, hurdler Tidye Pickett, sprinter Ralph Metcalfe, boxer Jim Clark, sprinter Mack Robinson; (kneeling, left to right): weightlifter John Terry and long jumper John Brooks
World class sprinter Jesse Owens also rose to worldwide acclaim around the same time as Joe Louis, with the 1936 Olympics in Adolf Hitler’s Germany. According to Owens’ daughter Marlene Owens Rankin: “It was politically… a very volatile time. Hitler was trying to… prove Aryan supremacy… My father got in trouble… the Jewish athletes… were not allowed to run… and my father spoke up for them… And he was told… ‘butt out.’[7] Judge Earl Strayhorn (1918 - 2009), former head of the Cook County, Illinois courts, remembered: “We were very proud… of… [Ralph Metcalfe] and Jesse Owens… they really did the race proud and the country proud in those Olympics… they stuck the flag right in [Adolph] Hitler's face.”[8] On that first ever televised Olympic Games, eighteen black athletes from the U.S. won fourteen medals, eight of them gold—a quarter of the 56 medals won by the entire U.S. team, with Owens earning four gold. He later stated: “When I came back to my native country, after all the stories about Hitler, I couldn't ride in the front of the bus. I had to go to the back door. I couldn't live where I wanted. I wasn't invited to shake hands with Hitler, but I wasn't invited to the White House to shake hands with the President [Franklin Delano Roosevelt], either.”[9]
Left: Jackie Robinson, undated
Right: Jackie Robinson, his wife Rachel and their three children at their home in Stamford, Connecticut, undated
In 1947, Jackie Robinson made history and integrated baseball when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers. This was a year prior to President Harry S. Truman’s integration of the military, seven years prior to the historic case of Brown vs. Board of Education, and seventeen years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Honorable DeLawrence Beard, chief judge for the Sixth Judicial Circuit Court of Maryland, recalled this time: “Jackie Robinson came into baseball… when I was [in] kindergarten, first grade, second grade, they say ‘things are changing DeLawrence,’ … ‘you have to prepare yourself,’ … Jackie Robinson… became significant, socially, politically, emotionally.”[10] Cultural activist Clarence Irving, Sr. (1924 - 2014) reflected on the “Jackie Robinson effect”: “Jackie Robinson started a fad… in those days, they [men] were getting out of the [U.S. military] service… coming into neighborhoods getting married… it became a style that you see a young man… and his baby… they had those baby carriages out there in the street showing 'em off… because of… Jackie and Rachel [Robinson's wife, Rachel Isum Robinson], a lot of people became very, very family conscious.”[11]
Left: News story on how “[Bill] Russell Would Give Up Basketball For Rights,” after his boycotting of an exhibition game, c. 1961
Right: African American athletes supporting Muhammad Ali’s refusal to fight in Vietnam, June 1967. Front row, left to right: Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, and Lew Alcindor. Back row, left to right: Carl Stokes, Walter Beach, Bobby Mitchell, Sid Williams, Curtis McClinton, Willie Davis, Jim Shorter and John Wooten.
The following decades would continue to see strong activism by the nation’s leading black athletes running parallel to the Black Power movement. Poet and activist Askia Toure further explained: “You had conferences, black people coming together practicing basically self-determination. I remember the Black Power conferences we had starting in '65 [1965]… Black Power conferences you had not just what people would call they Black Nationalist leaders, but you had sports figures… Muhammad Ali was there, Lew Alcindor [Kareem Abdul-Jabbar]… along with [HistoryMaker] Maulana Karenga and other people.”[12]
Left (left to right): Peter Norman, John Carlos, and Tommie Smith on the podium for the 200 meter
race, 1968
Right (left to right): Larry James, Lee Evans, and Ron Freeman on the podium for the 400 meter race, 1968
Then, in 1968, as television executive Johnathan Rodgers remembered: “Lew Alcindor [Kareem Abdul-Jabbar] at the time chose in fact to boycott the Olympics… John Carlos, Tommie Smith, Lee Evans, went, won and raised the fist and made their statement.”[13] Their actions are among those most widely remembered today. Former police officer Patricia Hill (1951 - 2017) recalled: “I was fortunate enough to qualify for the Olympic Trials in 1968 in the Long Jump… Tommie [Smith] and [HistoryMaker] John [Carlos]… Lee Evans, they were on the West Coast, and they were extremely progressive. We were being told by our coach and the Midwest people, ‘Stay away from them,’ … it was like taboo… [But] that was probably a pinnacle in my life, because it set the tone for a philosophy… I've had ever since then… And, it was through athletics.”[14] HistoryMaker and Olympic long jumper Willye B. White (1939 - 2007) noted other ways athletes protested: “All of the black athletes wore black, we had black sweat suits that was given us to by Adidas… whereas our uniform was white. And so we made statements like that.”[15]
Oscar Robertson of the Milwaukee Bucks, undated (left); and Oscar Robertson, President of the NBA Players Association, reading a statement to the Senate Subcommittee on Antitrust and Monopoly, Washington D.C., September 22, 1971 (right)
Two years later, HistoryMaker Oscar Robertson filed a lawsuit against the NBA as the first step toward unrestricted free agency in that league. Robertson further explained in his 2016 interview: “You can't keep a guy from playing… because… you have his contract… Well, years ago they could… This is what the Oscar Robertson case [challenged]… but the owners hated that… [Teammate] John Havlicek and I testified before the U.S. Senate [Senate Subcommittee on Antitrust and Monopoly]… one guy said, ‘why do you think you deserve this amount of money?’ I said… ‘because this is America… just like you, senator… they pay you X amount of money… do you deserve it?’”[16][17] Six years later, the resulting settlement became known as the “Oscar Robertson Rule,” and “the draft was modified… as were the right of first refusal and compensation rules which had restricted player movement among teams… Instead of destroying the league, as the owners had claimed it would, the Oscar Robertson Rule ushered in a new era of growth.”[18]
Left to right: Curt Flood of the St. Louis Cardinals, 1968; Curt Flood in front of Federal Court, New York City, June 1, 1970; and John Mackey of the Baltimore Colts, undated
Curt Flood, among the MLB’s best center fielders, began fighting for free agency in baseball at the same time as Robertson, writing to Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn: “After twelve years in the major leagues, I do not feel I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes. I believe that any system which produces that result violates my basic rights as a citizen.”[19] Filing a lawsuit against the MLB in 1970, Flood was eventually blackballed and never played again, but his case led to the implementation of free agency in the MLB four years later. Flood’s wife, HistoryMaker and actress Judy Pace-Flood, elaborated: “Baseball had received a very special clearance… they did not have to operate in the normal manner that every other business had to… one of the main things that they could do is… sign you to a contract for your entire life… and they could pay you what they wanted to pay you… you could not have a representative… What Curt did was part of the Civil Rights Movement… the guys call him the Rosa Parks of sports.[20][21] The same year Robertson and Flood filed suits, tight end John Mackey, as president of the National Football League Players Association, brought the fight for free agency to the NFL, organizing a strike in response to a lockout by NFL team owners. The resolution was players’ fringe benefits amounting to more than $12 million, helping set the foundation for free agency that would not come until 1993.
Naomi Osaki, US Open, September 2020
As magazine editor Roy S. Johnson pointed out: “If you think about change in America, a lot of it began in sports. Whether it was… black athletes protesting… racism at the Olympics or just here, whether it was... Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, who… decided that they weren't going to stand for some of the racist things... [in sports,] there was a significant opportunity to say things that could not only affect people's lives but could affect society as well.”[22]
[1] Vernon Jarrett (The HistoryMakers A2000.028), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, February 10, 2000, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 3, Vernon Jarrett recalls Joe Louis and how media and organizations served as "cement" for the mostly rural black population.
[2] Vernon Jarrett (The HistoryMakers A2000.028), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, June 27, 2000, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 2, tape 4, story 8, Vernon Jarrett talks about the importance of Joe Louis and radio in the African American community.
[3] Garth Reeves (The HistoryMakers A2013.183), interviewed by Larry Crowe, June 5, 2013, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 7, Garth Reeves recalls meeting Joe Louis while reporting for 'The Miami Times'.
[4] Truman K. Gibson, Jr. (The HistoryMakers A2002.079), interviewed by Larry Crowe, May 20, 2002, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 4, Truman K. Gibson talks about Joe Louis, pt. 1.
[5] Jules Tygiel. “The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson,” American Heritage, August/September 1984, accessed August 3, 2021.
[6] Gerard Peterson (The HistoryMakers A2005.142), interviewed by Robert Hayden, June 21, 2005, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 6, story 8, Gerard Peterson shares his advice for young golfers.
[7] Marlene Owens Rankin (The HistoryMakers A2003.060), interviewed by Larry Crowe, March 31, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 2, Marlene Rankin shares stories about her father, Jesse Owens, in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
[8] The Honorable Earl Strayhorn (The HistoryMakers A2003.005), interviewed by Larry Crowe, January 14, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 1, Earl Strayhorn recalls the 1936 Olympics.
[9] Larry Schwartz. “Owens pierced a myth,” ESPN, accessed August 10, 2021.
[10] The Honorable DeLawrence Beard (The HistoryMakers A2003.092), interviewed by Larry Crowe, April 26, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 5, DeLawrence Beard describes being motivated by Jackie Robinson and by his teachers at Charles H. Sumner High School in St. Louis, Missouri.
[11] Clarence Irving, Sr. (The HistoryMakers A2013.198), interviewed by Larry Crowe, July 12, 2013, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 6, story 2, Clarence Irving, Sr. talks about the influence of Jackie Robinson.
[12] Askia Toure' (The HistoryMakers A2007.131), interviewed by Larry Crowe, April 10, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 8, story 1, Askia Toure talks about the Independent Black Schools Movement and the 1970 Congress of African People in Atlanta, Georgia.
[13] Johnathan Rodgers (The HistoryMakers A2004.179), interviewed by Racine Tucker Hamilton, September 24, 2004, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 6, Johnathan Rodgers talks about researching 'The Plight of the Black Athlete' for Sports Illustrated in the late 1960s.
[14] Patricia Hill (The HistoryMakers A2002.081), interviewed by Larry Crowe, June 25, 2002, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 3, Patricia Hill talks about participating in the 1968 Olympic Trials for track with Tommie Smith and HistoryMaker John Carlos.
[15] Willye B. White (The HistoryMakers A2002.112), interviewed by Larry Crowe, July 2, 2002, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 6, Willye White recounts the athletes' demonstrations at the 1968 Olympics.
[16] Oscar Robertson (The HistoryMakers A2016.017), interviewed by Larry Crowe, September 3, 2016, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 8.
[17] Oscar Robertson (The HistoryMakers A2016.017), interviewed by Larry Crowe, September 3, 2016, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 9.
[18] “The Oscar Robertson Rule: landmark court decision changed the balance of power in professional sports,”, accessed August 10, 2021.
[19] Flood, Curt. Curt Flood to Bowie Kuhn, December 24, 1969. Letter. Freedom Papers. (accessed August 6, 2021).
[20] Judy Pace-Flood (The HistoryMakers A2005.085), interviewed by Larry Crowe, March 29, 2005, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 8, Judy Pace-Flood describes Major League Baseball's reserve clause.
[21] Judy Pace-Flood (The HistoryMakers A2005.085), interviewed by Larry Crowe, March 29, 2005, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 5, story 1, Judy Pace-Flood talks about Curt Flood's challenge to Major League Baseball's reserve clause.
[22] Roy S. Johnson (The HistoryMakers A2014.010), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, January 17, 2014, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 8, Roy Johnson talks about his career at the Atlanta Constitution.