The Results Are In!

One of the goals of my project is to educate my peers on the full extent of the civil rights movement, particularly its place in sports. Because of this, I recently conducted a survey across grades 9 through 12 at Ashley Hall in order to gauge students’ awareness of key African American athletes from the past century. To be perfectly frank, the results were quite shocking.

The five athletes I chose were Tommie Smith, Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, Joe Louis, and Arthur Ashe. I wanted to pick some figures who should be relatively well known, such as Robinson and Ashe, and others who might be less recognized, such as Tommie Smith. I then asked if the student had heard of the person, and if so, if they could identify what that person did. Shockingly, some students were unable to identify a single person on this sheet. It looks like I’ve got my work cut out for me.

To be honest, I’m a bit disappointed in our students. I expected nearly everyone to be able to identify Jackie Robinson as the first African American baseball player in the major leagues. In the end, only 61% of students knew what he did, and a majority of these merely said that he was a baseball player and made no mention of his history altering achievement as the first black man in the MLB. Additionally, Arthur Ashe, who was a huge human rights and social activist and for whom the largest tennis stadium in the world is named after, had only been heard of by 8 people, 4 of whom could correctly state that he had been a tennis player.

Not a single person had heard of Tommie Smith, who launched one of the most famous civil rights protests of the 60s, and only one person was able to recognize Joe Louis as a boxer. Similarly, Jesse Owens, one of the greatest Olympians of all time and a groundbreaker for African American rights in our country, was only identified by 5.5% of students, nearly all of whom merely stated that he was a runner.

Overall, I am quite appalled at these figures. Clearly, our students are unaware of some of the greatest athletes and civil rights activists in history. Hopefully throughout the year I will be able to use my project to remedy this problem and educate my peers on the true nature of the civil rights movement.

Here are the percentages from the study:

Tommie Smith:

0% of students had heard of him

0% of students knew what he did

Jesse Owens:

26.7% of students had heard of him

5.5% of students knew what he did*

*The typical response I received was that he was a runner. While this is extremely unspecific, I counted it amongst those who could identify what he did

Jackie Robinson:

81.5% of students had heard of him

61% of students knew what he did*

*The typical response I received was that he was a baseball player, and only very few students specified that he was the 1st African American in the MLB. I counted the students who only said he was in baseball amongst those who could identify what he did

Joe Louis:

3.4% of students had heard of him

.6% of students knew what he did

Arthur Ashe:

5.4% of students had heard of him

2.7% of students knew what he did

 

 

 

Meet… Dean Smith

“I do believe in praising that which deserves to be praised.”

Dean Smith was not black. He was not an athlete. He did not, contrary to popular belief, integrate the Atlantic Coast Conference. He did, however, use sports as an instrument for social change, launching protests and discussions with not only his words, but his actions as well. As the head basketball coach at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Smith was able to lead the school into a new era of progress and equality while simultaneously changing the face of basketball in both the ACC and the entire country.

Dean Smith’s dedication to civil rights and equality presented itself early on, when he was a high school basketball player in Topeka, Kansas. Upset by the division between his high school’s prominent all-white basketball team and the all-black team that was created due to segregation, Smith went to the principal and demanded the two teams be merged in order to allow the best possible talent to be allowed to play, regardless of race. After much deliberation, as well as increased pressure on behalf of Smith, the principal eventually relented, and the following season saw three African Americans on the Topeka High junior varsity team. Two years later, Bill Peterson made his debut as the first black basketball player at Topeka.

This commitment to change characterized Dean Smith’s later career as one of the winningest coaches in college basketball history. When he first took this coaching job, Chapel Hill still had segregated restaurants and facilities. The ACC was all white. Amongst this atmosphere of racial division, Smith soon realized that change was necessary. He understood that as the coach of the college’s basketball team, which in North Carolina is almost like its own religion, he had a certain power that came with that position. Thus, in the early 60’s, Dean Smith, Bob Seymour- a local minister and lifelong friend of Smith’s- and a black Chapel Hill student all arrived at The Pines, a local high end restaurant that was adamant about refusing African American patrons. As Seymour later said, “We asked to be served and with Dean Smith at the door, they could not say no. That was the opening of the door of The Pines restaurant.”

Perhaps his most well known contribution to civil rights was his recruitment of Charlie Scott, one of the first black students to play in the ACC and the first African American scholarship athlete at the University of North Carolina. In recruiting Scott, Dean Smith literally changed the face of UNC and helped integrate the entire ACC. Just as he had done at Topeka High, Smith challenged sports teams to include the best overall talent available, not simply the best white talent.

Dean Smith knew that with such a prominent position, he had the power to enact the change he desired to see in the world. He helped establish a settlement house in Chapel Hill for low income workers. He demanded that revenue from the basketball program be shared with all the school’s athletic programs, both men’s and women’s. He campaigned for higher wages for domestic workers. Most importantly, however, he brought equality to a city, a school, and a conference that desperately needed it.

 

Works Cited:

Lapchick, Richard. “Dean Smith and a Civil Rights legacy.” ESPN.com. ESPN, 17 May 2011. Web. 27 Oct. 2012. <http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/commentary/news/story?page=lapchick/110517>.

Kelley, Steve. “Dean Smith Challenged Chapel Hill’s Old Prejudices.” The Seattle Times. The Seattle Times Newspaper, 29 Mar. 1997. Web. 27 Oct. 2012. <http://community.seattletimes.nwsource.com/archive/?date=19970329>.

Sport in Society

The other day, I had the opportunity to talk with Mr. Jarrod Chin, the Director of Training and Curriculum at Sport in Society. This is an organization based in Boston that is dedicated to using sports to promote social justice and diversity awareness in the community. For my project, I have been studying the ability of athletes such as Jackie Robinson and Arthur Ashe to use sports as a platform for social change, and so it was incredible to see how this philosophy has been carried into the 21st century and used to solve current issues in society.

Through athletics, Sport in Society seeks to promote leadership, diversity acceptance, violence prevention, and community building. When I asked Mr. Chin how sports are able to accomplish this, he told me that the main idea behind this philosophy is that sports are a huge part of our lives and they serve as a microcosm of our society. Additionally, in athletic competition it doesn’t matter what race, gender, sexual orientation, economic status, or religion a person is. All that matters is their participation and achievement on the court or the field. Sport in Society seeks to carry this view of equality into everyday life, so that this mindset behind sports translates into our society. This is exactly what prominent black athletes were able to do throughout the past century, as they proved that African Americans were equal in sports and thus were equal in every aspect of life as well.

Mr. Chin also explained some of the various programs within Sport in Society, most notably Project Teamwork and MVP (Mentors in Violence Prevention). Project Teamwork is the organization’s longest running program, and it seeks to use sports to promote diversity awareness and facilitate conflict resolution. In order to accomplish this, this program brings prominent athletes, such as Lin Dawson, Luis Tiant, Norm Van Lier, and Olympic Gold Metal Rower Holly Metcalf, to speak to young people and lead discussions in solving conflicts and appreciating differences. This sparks conversations in communities that eventually lead to open communication and conflict resolution.

The other program, MVP, teaches athletes and leaders the tools necessary to combat abusive issues between men and women, such as rape, violence, and sexual harassment. This is perhaps the most well known of Sport in Society’s programs, and currently operates all around the world. In fact, it even held an event at the most recent World Cup, arguably the most high profile international event besides the Olympics.

Both programs utilize the “bystander approach”, an idea unique to Sport in Society that provides the framework for social change. The bystander approach teaches  that violent or problematic social situations do not just involve perpetrators and victims, but third parties as well. As witnesses, people usually don’t have the skills to intervene non-violently; however, this approach teaches them what to do in certain situations and provides them with a “playbook”, so that they know what to do when social problems arise.

I am so thankful to have come in contact with Mr. Chin, and he has been extremely helpful in answering my questions and explaining the ideas and philosophies behind Sport in Society. He has also provided me with some additional material to study, such as a video of a speech by Sport in Society’s founder, Dr. Richard Lapchick. Overall, this organization is an excellent example of the use of sports as a method of social change in current day society, and its goals and ideologies encompass the spirit of my project perfectly.

Integration on the Court: College Basketball in the South

Today, we think nothing of seeing a star African American player or an all-black starting lineup in college basketball. In fact, this is somewhat common in the world of collegiate hoops. What many people fail to comprehend, however, is the amount of effort and time it took to integrate college basketball, especially in the American South, an area dominated by discrimination and prejudice. Often, storied programs refused to change their ways and integrate, and fans continued to protest interference in their segregated teams’ affairs. In the end, it took the audacity of innovative coaches, a changing social attitude, and simply time to alter the face of college basketball in the South.

The first step in integrating collegiate basketball was integrating the school itself. White southern colleges did not even begin to admit black students until the early 1960s, despite the fact that Brown vs. Board of Education had deemed segregated public schools unconstitutional in 1954. Once African Americans were allowed on campus, they were still excluded from athletic teams until the late 1960s and early 1970s. Northern liberals found this segregation ridiculous, and hoped that integrating collegiate sports teams would provide the South and the rest of the country with an example of prosperous cooperation between whites and blacks. Indeed, many colleges outside of the South had opened their athletic teams to African Americans by the mid-1950s, and the National Basketball Association had been integrated in 1950. The rest of the country was taking strides forward, but the South remained stubbornly in its discriminatory past.

This divide between the South and the rest of the country became prominent when it came time for segregated southern teams to play integrated teams from the North. In the first half of the 20th century, southern colleges had simply not scheduled games against teams with black players or had entered into “gentleman’s agreements” with schools with integrated teams. These agreements dictated that the southern college would play a northern school only if that school excluded its African American players from the game. This code of conduct governed play between northern and southern colleges until 1950, by which time most integrated schools refused to agree to a gentleman’s agreement and bar their black players from competition. This resulted in southern colleges either organizing careful scheduling so as not to play any team with an African American player or simply canceling a game against an integrated team, as the University of Tennessee did against Duquesne in 1945.

By the 1950s, most colleges outside of the South had removed barriers preventing African American involvement in athletic programs. In basketball, this resulted in the emergence of a number of African American stars, such as the great Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, and Bill Russell. The success of the interracial squads of the north put pressure on colleges of the South to integrate their own teams. Any move to recruit black players, however, was halted by vehement opposition on behalf of southern society. Fans and officials alike protested federally mandated desegregation, and officials in Birmingham, Alabama even went so far as to pass laws prohibiting interracial sporting events. This practice was carried out by the state of Louisiana as well, which in 1956 adopted a bill making it illegal for blacks and whites to compete in any athletic event. The attitude of Southern society toward athletic integration was perhaps best summarized by Georgia senator Leon Butts, who in 1957 said interracial competition should be banned because, “when Negroes and whites meet on the athletic fields on a basis of complete equality, it is only natural that this sense of equality carries into the daily living of these people.”

This ideology eventually affected the Mississippi State basketball and denied them any chance of winning the NCAA Championship tournament. After winning the SEC in 1959, 1961, and 1962, and thus securing a bid into the post season tournament, the Bulldogs were forced to decline their invitation to the NCAAs because of their state and school’s policy against interracial competition. By the time Mississippi State won the SEC again in 1963, university officials were determined to give their basketball team a chance in the NCAA tournament, thus challenging the segregationists of the state. This move was not appreciated by some fans, who felt that though athletic achievement was important to the state and to the school, “our southern way of life is infinitely more precious.” As a result, they were granted a temporary injunction preventing the team from leaving the state to play against integrated teams in the north for the postseason. This was eventually dissolved, but Mississippi State officials were so worried about the actions of die-hard segregationists that the team had to secretly sneak out of the state to travel to their game.

Mississippi State went on to play against Loyola University, a team with four black starters who beat the Bulldogs on their way to the championship game. This has since been considered an important step towards achieving racial equality in the South, and it made interracial competition between southern and northern schools politically, if not socially, acceptable. This shifting attitude began to spread throughout the South as schools moved towards fully integrating their own teams. Supported by student protests and campus opinion, the University of Kentucky announced in 1963 that its athletic programs would be open to all students, regardless of race. Despite this, however, the school’s basketball team did not actually become integrated until 1970.

While the SEC remained all-white, southern Texas schools began integrating their own basketball teams. This was first achieved in 1956, when Texas Western College became the first historically white southern university to become integrated with the enrollment of Charles Brown and his nephew, Cecil Brown. This policy was continued in 1961 when the school hired coach Don Haskins, who asserted that he would recruit the best players he could, regardless of race. The University of Louisville would later go on to become the first school to integrate the Upper South in 1964 when three black players, Wade Houston, Stan Smith, and Eddie Whitehead, began playing for the Cardinals.

It would still be Texas Western, however, that would radically change the face of college basketball in the 1966 championship game against the Kentucky Wildcats. This game featured the all black starting lineup of Texas Western against the all white starters of the segregated Kentucky squad. Texas Western would go on to defeat the Wildcats, proving to the South that having the best available talent, regardless of race, was more important to winning than maintaing racial prejudices and a “southern way of life”. Indeed, this game had since been considered the “emancipation proclamation” of southern collegiate basketball.

Shortly after this victory, Perry Wallace was recruited by Vanderbilt University and went on to break the SEC’s color barrier in 1967. Change was slow, however, and the 1969-1970 basketball season saw only 2 African Americans among 120 SEC players. It wasn’t until 1972, when Mississippi State finally signed a black player, that the SEC became a fully integrated athletic conference. Eventually, by 1975, black athletes made up 45 percent of SEC players, and the conference was considered to have achieved relative racial equality.

The road to integration in southern college basketball was both incredibly long (spanning from 1945 until 1972) and incredibly difficult. So why did it change? Contributing factors include: changing student and faculty attitudes, African American presence on campuses, pressure from integrated northern colleges, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the will to win and recruit the best talent available. Eventually, the integrated teams of the South proved to the rest of southern society that blacks and whites could work together toward a common goal, and provided an example of successful interracial cooperation.

 

Works Cited:

Miller, Patrick B., and David Kenneth Wiggins. Sport and the Color Line: Black Athletes and Race Relations in Twentieth-century America. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.

The Black List

The Black List is a collection of autobiographical essays from prominent African Americans in various professions, including the business, entertainment, and sports worlds. Although it is not focused on sports, this book did include a significant essay by Serena Williams, the Grand Slam-winning tennis champion who has dominated women’s tennis for the past decade along with her sister Venus.

I read this essay shortly after completing Charging the Net, which examined the role of African Americans in tennis throughout the past century. This book discussed the impact the Williams’ sisters have had on tennis during their careers and mentioned a few instances of racial discrimination they had faced while on tour. By reading Serena’s personal essay, I was able to learn first hand about life as an African American on the predominately white professional tennis circuit.

In her essay, Serena discusses her early years on the professional tour. She writes about how Venus was always her rock and bulwark, and she made life as a black woman in tennis easier because she had already been playing for two years. Serena also describes difficulties in the locker room, a place in which she stood out amongst other players because of her dark skin tone. In an atmosphere that is already frosty due to the ever present competition of the sport, Serena initially felt out of place and excluded by other players during her first few years on tour.

One of the most shocking occurrences took place in Indian Wells, California, at a very prominent tournament that Serena was playing in. Despite the fact that she was one of very few Americans playing in this tournament, she was treated terribly by the fans. When she entered the court for the final against Kim Clijsters, a Belgian, the crowd began booing. This did not stop for the remainder of the match, including when she lifted the championship trophy over her head following her defeat of Clijsters. Serena talks about her bewilderment at being rejected by her fellow Americans in a tournament on her home soil and how she decided that from then on, she would no longer play in the draw there. This incident occurred in 2001, and neither Serena no Venus has yet to play at Indian Wells since then.

Serena’s personal account of the event at Indian Wells was very interesting to read because it differs from other stories I have since read about the incident. Other accounts claim that the crowd was booing because in the previous match, Venus had pulled out of her scheduled semifinal matchup against Serena only minutes before it was set to begin. This angered the crowd, who then decided to take it out on Serena and the rest of the family during the final. However, both Serena and her father have claimed that they heard the word “nigger” and believe that the jeers of the crowd were at least based partially on race. Although we may not know the exact origin of the crowds very verbal displeasure, Serena’s essay proved that it still had a profound effect on her and caused her to doubt herself and her relationship with tennis fans because of her race.

Moses Fleetwood Walker: The Other Man Who Integrated Baseball

Moses Fleetwood Walker. Ever heard of him? Of course not. But believe it or not, Moses Walker was a black man who played baseball in the majors more than sixty years before Jackie Robinson first stepped on the field as a Brooklyn Dodger. In fact, he was the first black man to play major baseball. Despite this, however, no one knows his story. Sadly, his tale of courage and valor has been lost in the passage of time, yet it is important to remember that he was a man who overcame racial barriers and helped African Americans take one more small step toward equality.

Moses Walker first made a mark in baseball in 1882 when he was in college at the University of Michigan, enjoying a successful career as a Wolverine and emerging as one of the team’s stars. Following his days at Michigan, Walker then went on to sign with a minor league baseball team, the Toledo Blue Stockings. It was there that he first confronted the many obstacles he would have to overcome during his career as an African American in the game of baseball. One of the stars of the day, Cap Anson, refused to take the field against the Blue Stockings if Walker played in the starting lineup. Although Anson ultimately gave in and played in the game, this proved an example of the discriminatory racial attitudes toward Walker at the time.

Walker continued to play catcher for the Blue Stockings throughout the 1883 season, although this was only a minor league team. It wasn’t until the next year, in 1884, that he would truly get his chance in the majors. During that year, a new professional baseball league, the American Association (which would later become the modern day American League) was created in order to compete with the other dominant league, the National League. During the Association’s formation, the Toledo Blue Stockings were added to the league, and thus became a major team. Because of this, Moses Fleetwood Walker officially became the first black man to play professional baseball on May 1st, 1884, in Toledo’s opening game against the Louisville Eclipse.

Unfortunately, this landmark achievement was not appreciated by other players and fans. Throughout the game, Walker was the victim of racial slurs and death threats. His team’s pitcher, Tony Mullane, admitted that while he believed that Walker was a great catcher, he would intentionally pitch without looking at Walker’s signals because he disliked playing with an African American (this is a practice that is extremely dangerous for catchers, especially at this time when they played without helmets or pads, because they do not know where the pitch is going and can thus be hit by the ball very easily). Often times throughout the year, Walker would be too hurt to play after being struck by a ball in a previous game. This essentially characterized Walker’s short career in the major leagues, as neither his fellow teammates nor opposing players respected him or treated him well throughout the season, despite the fact that he proved himself a solid player who batted extremely well before his year was cut short with a season ending injury.

In 1885, the Toledo Blue Stockings dissolved, sending Walker back down to the minor leagues, where he continued to play for several seasons. Although he attempted to return to the majors, this was ultimately prevented when the American Association and the National League unofficially banned black players, reestablishing the color barrier that would remain intact until Jackie Robinson began playing in 1947.

Although he only played one season of major league baseball, Moses Fleetwood Walker was a man who display immense courage and sacrifice when he became the first African American to play baseball in the major leagues. The discrimination and oppression he faced throughout the year due to his race exemplifies the struggles other African Americans would face for years to come, both in sports and in society. Ultimately, he must be remembered as a trail blazer who overcame obstacles and challenges to create better opportunities for other blacks of the time.

Works Cited:

Regan, Barry. “Moses Fleetwood Walker: The Forgotten Man Who Actually Integrated Baseball.” Bleacher Report. Turner Sports Digital, 16 Apr. 2012. Web. 14 Sept. 2012. <http://bleacherreport.com/articles/1147947-moses-fleetwood-walker-the-forgotten-man-who-actually-integrated-baseball>.

“JockBio: Moses Fleetwood Walker Biography.” JockBio: Moses Fleetwood Walker Biography. Black Book Partners, n.d. Web. 15 Oct. 2012. <http://www.jockbio.com/Classic/Walker/Walker_bio.html>.

USC vs. Alabama: The Game That Changed Everything

In 1970, when perennial football powerhouses University of Southern California and University of Alabama met in what was considered to be a high profile match up, college football in the South was still marred by segregation and teams remained predominantly white. But that wasn’t on the minds of spectators and fans in the days leading up to the game. They were too concerned with whether or not the Crimson Tide was going to be able to pull off a victory and restore themselves to their previous dominance following a 6-5 season the year before. But by the end of the game? By then, integration had come to the forefront of everyone’s minds.

Despite high expectations for Alabama, they were thoroughly trounced by the Trojans, 42-21. The main reason for this rout? USC’s black running back, Sam Cunningham. It was the first time a fully integrated team had played in Alabama, due to social attitudes toward integration and previous laws that had prohibited Alabama sports teams from playing against integrated squads. So when USC came down South to play against the all-white Crimson Tide, no one knew quite what would come of it.

In the end, Sam Cunningham rushed for 135 yards and 2 touchdowns on just 12 carries. In other words, he ran right over Alabama’s defense and singlehandedly stomped the Crimson Tide. That a single player could so thoroughly embarrass their team, and that that player was black, had a profound impact on the Alabama faithful. Suddenly, their whole cultural attitude toward integration shifted. If they wanted their team to be the best, shouldn’t they try to recruit the best, regardless of race? Bear Bryant, Alabama’s legendary coach, would have liked to recruit black players, but had refrained from doing so due to the discriminatory ideals of the state. Now, however, fans realized that if they wanted to compete with other top teams, such as USC, they would have to open their doors to black athletes. And so they did. Within the next year, the Alabama Crimson Tide was an integrated football team, and they went on to win three national championships under Bear Bryant.

Sam Cunningham is said to have done more to integrate Alabama in sixty minutes than Martin Luther King Jr. did in twenty years. While this may be a slight over exaggeration, it is clear that his phenomenal game against the Crimson Tide in 1970 marked a change in the South’s racial attitude. Alabama citizens were finally able to see the necessity of integration and to begin to accept it in society, a change that may have been a long time coming, but that came nonetheless.

Works Cited:

Everson, Darren. “The Game That Changed Alabama.” The Wall Street Journal. N.p., 4 Dec. 2009. Web. 20 Sept. 2012.

Meet… Joe Louis

“This is the best country I know of… and I’d gladly fight to defend it. Every colored man I’ve ever known has been 100 percent American and I’ll always be loyal to my country and my race. I’d never let either down.”

One of the greatest boxers to ever grace the sport, Joe Louis has endured in the hearts of Americans as not only a champion, but a hero as well. No just a black hero, however. An American hero. He represented the United States at a time when our fundamental principles of democracy and freedom were being threatened by Hitler’s Third Reich across the ocean in Germany. What is most remarkable, however, is that he did so as a  black man when our nation was still engulfed in an atmosphere of segregation and discrimination. He challenged the standards of racial inequality and proved that all men are equal. He showed the country that all citizens serve the United States, whether they be black or white. In the end, that might have been his greatest victory of all.

Before he rose to become the iconic “Brown Bomber”, Joe Louis spent the first part of his childhood in Alabama, one of eight biological siblings and eight other step siblings. In 1926, when he was twelve, Louis’ family moved north to Detroit, Michigan as part of the Great Migration of African Americans from the fields of the South to the urban cities of the North. Throughout his youth, Joe Louis struggled in school, hindered by serious learning disabilities and a strong dislike of the practice. Due to his size and lack of interest in education, Louis became interested in boxing after his friend Thurston McKinney convinced him to try the sport, prompting him to begin training with Atler Ellis and Holman Williams at the Brewster’s East Side Gymnasium in Detroit. In 1932, when he was eighteen, Louis began his amateur boxing career. After an initial loss, Louis went on to win his next fourteen fights, each bringing a bonus check that he gave to his mother to feed his large family. It was this early success in amateur bouts that eventually prompted Louis to move to Chicago and begin his legendary career as a professional prizefighter.

In Chicago, Louis began training with Jack Blackburn, a man who introduced “The Joe Louis Shuffle” to his boxing strategy. This quick shuffling of the feet helped Louis maintain his balance during fights and led to many early round knockouts by Louis. With each fight, he was more spectacular than the last, defeating opponents handily and knocking them out with ease. As his resume improved, so did his popularity, especially in African American communities. After two big wins in 1934 over Primo Carnera and Kingfish Levinsky, black newspapers across the country lauded his athletic talent and praised his achievements. These huge wins also earned Louis a lot of money, which he then shared with his mother and the rest of his family, paying off all of their welfare checks and buying his mother a fully furnished house in Detroit.

With such dominance in the ring, Joe Louis began to emerge as a full fledged racial hero. Indeed, from 1933 to 1938, Louis was featured on the front page of magazines and newspapers more than any other black leader. Suddenly, he became a role model for young African American children, an embodiment of the heights a black man could achieve with hard work and determination. For the black population of America, Joe Louis was not just a champion, he was their champion, and if he could win the many bouts he participated in, then maybe they could win their daily personal struggles as well. Then in 1937, coming off a loss to Germany’s Max Schmeling, Louis knocked out Jim Braddock in the eight round to become the second black American to win the World Heavyweight Boxing Championship, after Jack Johnson in 1908.

When he won the heavyweight title, Joe Louis had been primarily a black hero. It wasn’t until his rematch against Max Schmeling in 1938, however, that he truly emerged as an American hero. Indeed, this fight is one of the most important examples of the ability of sports to promote racial equality throughout the country. When it took place, the United States and Germany were divided by their differing political and ideological beliefs, with the threat of armed conflict looming on the horizon. This view translated into the ring as well, with Schmeling representing the Nazi ideals of Aryan supremacy and Louis embodying the American concepts of democracy and equality.

Against the common enemy of Germany, whites and blacks across the United States were able to stand behind Louis and support him as a defender of their freedoms and beliefs. He was, ultimately, a representation of America, and when he scored a first round knockout over Schmeling, he suddenly became the nation’s new hero. When the country looked upon him, they did not see him as black; they saw him as American. The Chicago Defender wrote of Louis’ victory, “It was more than the victory of one athlete over another, it was the triumph of a repressed people against the evil forces of racial oppression and discrimination condensed- by chance- into the shape of Max Schmeling.” Ultimately, Louis had transcended the racial barriers of the time, and this emergence proved that all men were equal regardless of skin color, both in the ring and out.

Joe Louis’ role as a patriotic hero of America was only furthered when he joined the Army in 1942. This action proved that men of all races were Americans too, and helped close the gap between blacks and whites and unify the nation. He also went on to contribute several of his purses from heavyweight fights to branches of the American military, such as the Navy and the Army. These actions helped characterize him as a man who embodied the fundamental beliefs of our nation. They solidified him as an American folk hero, one who inspired Americans of all races in a time when our nation was threatened by World War II. In the end, Joe Louis remains, even today, not just a great boxer, not just a great black leader, but a great American citizen as well.

Works Cited:

Miller, Patrick B., and David Kenneth Wiggins. Sport and the Color Line: Black Athletes and Race Relations in Twentieth-century America. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.

Branch Rickey: How He Integrated Baseball

As we all know, Jackie Robinson was the player who shattered racial barriers when he integrated baseball in 1947. But before he could swing a bat in the major leagues, or even step onto the field for that matter, he had to be signed by someone who believed in equality, who believed that it wasn’t right for America’s sport to be divided by the color of its players’ skin. This man was Branch Rickey, an executive of the Brooklyn Dodgers who initiated the “Noble Experiment” of integration.

In a 1956 speech to the “One Hundred Percent Wrong Club” in Atlanta, about 9 years after Jackie Robinson began playing in the MLB, Rickey discussed his decision to end segregation in baseball and the factors he found necessary to achieve this, as well as the obstacles he faced along the way. The first of these hurdles was ownership. In order to sign a black player, Rickey knew that he needed to find an owner sympathetic to his cause to allow integration to occur. In the end, he found that owner: himself.

Once he became part owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Rickey was able to move on to the next task: finding the right player to break baseball’s color barrier. This person had to not only be a great player, but a great man as well. Rickey spent extensive time and effort scouting the Negro Leagues for one such player. While there were plenty of outstanding black athletes, Rickey needed someone who would be able to endure the discrimination and prejudice he would face as the first black major league player, someone who would not lose his temper or his cool while facing nearly insurmountable obstacles. He wanted “a man of exceptional intelligence, a man who was able to grasp and control the responsibilities of himself to his race and could carry that load.” This man would have to represent his entire race on sport’s biggest stage, and if he failed, the Great Experiment would be destroyed; indeed, integration itself would likely be postponed for another decade. Branch Rickey went looking for a hero, and what he found was Jackie Robinson.

Jackie Robinson was everything Rickey needed and more. Once he found his man, Rickey confronted the next obstacle, feasibility. This included organizing “public relations, transportation, housing, accommodations” etc. These logistics proved extremely difficult in 1940’s segregated America. Countless times, hotels would not accommodate the team or a restaurant would refuse to serve them, and the Brooklyn Dodgers would move on to the next place that would. Ultimately, though, these obstacles did little to deter Rickey from achieving his goal of integrating the MLB.

Rickey was also worried about the reaction of the African American population itself. He knew that such a groundbreaking change would prompt African Americans to almost overdo their celebration of Jackie Robinson and integration, thus furthering the separation between races that Rickey was trying to overcome. He didn’t want celebratory dinners or mass attendances; he didn’t want Jackie Robinson to be an anomaly. He wanted Jackie to be a professional baseball player, just like everyone else in the MLB, whether he be white or black or purple or green. He wanted Jackie to be judged by the power of his swing, not the color of his skin, and he wanted this to apply to both the black and white population of America.

Lastly, the final obstacle that Branch Rickey had to overcome was one that he had very little control over: the reaction of his fellow players on the Brooklyn Dodgers team. In the end, this proved to be a very small problem. Although it was a gradual change, Jackie Robinson’s teammates accepted him in the locker room. Was everyone his best friend? Of course not, but that would have been the case as well had he been white like every other player. But they supported him and respected him, and ultimately, that’s all Branch Rickey could have asked for.

Branch Rickey had a mission. He wanted to integrate baseball, to bring about the equality and acceptance that America was founded upon. He was, in his own words, “completely color-blind”. And, like every man with a mission, he also had a plan. He followed this plan, stuck to it as he dodged blows and jumped hurdles and overcame obstacles, and, against all odds, his Great Experiment worked. Jackie Robinson integrated baseball, and the whole country became a little more color-blind. Just like Branch Rickey himself.

 

Works Cited:

Rickey, Branch. “Speech by Branch Rickey for the “One Hundred Percent Wrong Club” Banquet.” Speech. “The One Hundred Percent Wrong Club” Banquet. Atlanta. 20 Jan. 1956. The Library Of Congress: American Memory. The Library Of Congress. Web. 25 Sept. 2012.

Meet… Frank Robinson

“I always tried to do the best. I knew I couldn’t always be the best, but I tried to be.”

When most people think of groundbreaking African Americans in baseball, the first name that comes to their minds is Jackie Robinson. But what about the other Robinson? What about Frank Robinson, the first African American to serve as manager of a major league team? A pioneering player and manager, Robinson was a man who paved the way for African Americans and other minorities in coaching and managing positions in Major League Baseball, changing the face of baseball for years to come in a manner similar to Jackie Robinson himself.

Before making history as an MLB manager, Robinson first had a stellar playing career that landed him in the Hall of Fame. He was a six time all-star selection and became the only player ever to win the MVP award in both the National and American leagues. He also won the elusive Triple Crown (leading the league in batting average, home runs, and RBIs), as well as the World Series MVP when his Baltimore Orioles won the World Series in 1966. Such accomplishments have landed Frank Robinson among the all-time greats of baseball and made him into a playing legend.

Yet, despite this, perhaps his most lasting achievements came not at the plate, but in the dugout. This occurred in 1975, when Frank Robinson was hired by the Cleveland Indians and became the first black manager in Major League Baseball history. Not only was he the manager of the Indians, however, but he also served as a player during his first two years coaching. In a game that has since seen many black players, but few black managers, Robinson’s achievement stands out as instrumental in breaking the barrier of managerial and coaching positions for African Americans. The influence of Frank Robinson extends not only to baseball, but to all sports. He helped America take strides toward racial equality, and proved that blacks could stand as leaders. In a country that today has an African American president, we might forget that circumstances weren’t always this equal.

Frank Robinson blazed a trail for many African American managers to come, among them Cito Gaston, Dusty Baker, Ron Washington, and others. He also laid the foundation for other minorities in the sport of baseball, most notably Hispanic and South American. Manny Acta, the former manager of the Cleveland Indians, credits Robinson and fellow Venezuelan manager Felipe Alou for breaking barriers and making a place for himself in the game of baseball. Ultimately, Frank Robinson left baseball as an outstanding Hall of Fame player with multiple honors and records to his name. In the end, however, the title of baseball’s first black manager may be the most groundbreaking one of all.

 

Works Cited:

Bastian, Jordan. “Robinson Powerful Force As Player-Manager.” Indians.com. MLB, 16 Feb. 2012. Web. 4 Oct. 2012.