Timeline of the Civil Rights Movement Through Sports

To begin with, a comprehensive timeline of important dates and moments in sports and the civil rights movement-

* points that are bolded and italicized are those that occurred outside sports

1863- The Emancipation Proclamation is issued

1884- Moses Fleetwood Walker integrates professional baseball

1908- Jack Johnson becomes the 1st black heavyweight-boxing champion

1910- Jack Johnson defends his title and defeats Jim Jeffries, who had been deemed the “Great White Hope”

1919- Fritz Pollard begins pro football, goes on to form first all-black team

1923- Jack Trice, an African American Iowa State football player, is trampled to death on field against Minnesota

1936- Jesse Owens wins 4 gold medals at the Berlin Olympics

1938- Joe Louis defeats Max Schmeling

1947- Jackie Robinson integrates the MLB

1948- Armed forces integrated

1950- NBA integrated

1954- Brown vs. Board of Education dismisses “separate but equal”

1955- Montgomery bus boycott

1957- Althea Gibson wins Wimbledon

1957- the Little Rock Nine integrate Arkansas schools

1963- Martin Luther King Jr. gives his “I Have a Dream Speech”

1963- Mississippi State plays the integrated Loyola University in the NCAA tournament after having previously boycotting the tournament in protest of integration

1964- Civil Rights Act passed

1966- Muhammad Ali claims exemption from the Vietnam draft

1966- Bill Russell becomes first black NBA head coach

1966- Texas Western defeats all-white Kentucky in the NCAA basketball championship game with an all-black starting five

1967- Perry Wallace integrates SEC basketball

1968- Tommie Smith and John Carlos launch black power salute at the Mexico City Olympics

1970- USC defeats Alabama behind Sam Cunningham’s amazing game; the next year Alabama integrates its football team

1975- Frank Robinson becomes 1st black MLB manager

1975- Arthur Ashe wins Wimbledon

1989- Art Shell becomes the 1st black head coach in the NFL since Fritz Pollard

2008- Barack Obama becomes the first African American president of the United States

Muhammad Ali’s Protest of the Draft, Vietnam, and the Role of the Black Athlete

Outspoken, arrogant, fearless. Muhammad Ali was all of these and more, bursting into the boxing ring with power, grace, and recklessness. He was both loved and hated, revered and despised. Gone were the days of Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson simply bearing the brunt of discrimination and prejudice as they bridged the gap toward equality; instead, Ali chose to glorify his blackness, to revel in the darkness of his skin and accentuate the difference it caused. He was proud, perhaps too much so, and when he swaggered into the ring to fight or onto a podium to speak, there was no doubt that he believed he was the best. He embraced his race, wore it proudly in the face of his white critics, and in doing so made it a factor in nearly everything he did for the duration of his career. Ultimately, Muhammad Ali revolutionized the role of the black athlete, twisting it in ways that were neither good nor bad, but that were certainly different.

When Ali chose to convert to Islam, and thus change is name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad, he began the separatist stance that would mark the rest of his career. This rejection of America’s prominent religion was simultaneously a rejection of authority, of the God most Americans viewed as the highest possible power. It was as if he had said that no one, not even God and certainly not a white man, could control him or tell him what to do. For many whites, this was a worrisome approach that ultimately angered them, as they had just become used to the idea of African Americans as silent and peaceful athletes when this outspoken and brash young man decided to deviate from the status quo.

Perhaps the most important factor in Ali’s conversion to Islam, however, was the power it gave him in his later protest of the military draft. Indeed, in early 1966, amidst political and social chaos and a raging war that was taking young lives by the thousands, Muhammad Ali claimed exemption from the draft on religious grounds of conscientious objection due to his Islamic faith. Unsurprisingly, this move shocked the country. Some praised him for his moral conviction and willingness to take a stand for peace and justice. Others called him a coward, angered at his refusal to serve his country as so many other men had done. Confused as to the true reason for his exemption, many believed it to be a public stand for his race, a continuation of his rejection of authority that said no black man could be made to fight for a country that wouldn’t even treat him equally.

If it was indeed a fight for the cause of his black brethren, Ali’s protest may have actually backfired. Although some notable black athletes, such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Russell, supported his decision, others, most notably Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis, did not. “He’s hurting, I think, the morale of a lot of young Negro soldiers in Vietnam,” Robinson later said. Ultimately this was true, as many African American soldiers fighting in Vietnam became outraged and frustrated by Ali’s exemption. In fact, many of them hated him for it. In the end, this attempt to take a stand for his fellow African Americans only served to alienate him from those that were fighting in the war, damaging his solidarity with them and his stance of racial pride.

Eventually Ali’s boxing license and heavyweight title were stripped due to his refusal to partake in the draft. Yet despite this, he remained steadfast in his commitment not to fight in the war, even saying to a pack of reporters questioning him on Vietnam, “Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong”. This blatantly political and controversial position may have been viewed as either heroic or cowardly, but it undeniably changed the image of the black athlete. Before, African Americans had endured so much hardship to even make it onto the field that once they were there, they simply remained quiet and strove to represent their race in the best way possible. Muhammad Ali, on the other hand, used his prominent athletic position to not only represent his race, but to advocate it as well, embracing his blackness in a way no other athlete had before. He was not simply a boxer, he was a man, one with a character that was proud and brash and ferocious, but that was also unafraid to take a stand for a cause he believed in. So despite one’s feelings on his positions and comments, it can not be denied that through his protests, Muhammad Ali gave black athletes a vocal power that they had never before experienced.


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.

A Question of Racial Supremacy: Jack Johnson vs. Jim Jeffries, 1910

Jack Johnson is perhaps the most enigmatic and controversial sports figure of the past century. A black boxer in the early 1900’s, he drank, smoked, cursed, and slept with countless women- most of them white. In fact, at one point in his career he travelled across the country with his wife, his mistress, and a prostitute he had recently been seeing. Such extravagant and out of control living caused the public to view him as a hoodlum, especially due to his race.

Indeed, white fans deemed him a brute and felt that he represented all that was wrong with the black race. So when Johnson defeated Canadian Tommy Burns in 1908 to become the first black heavyweight boxing champion of the world, fans of the sport were less than pleased. Almost immediately after Johnson became champion, public pressure began to mount in persuading the retired previous champion, Jim Jeffries, to make a comeback and restore the racial order in boxing. And thus began the lead up to what would later be deemed “The Fight of the Century”.

Eventually, Jim Jeffries gave in to the public and announced his comeback after two years of retirement from boxing. Immediately, frenzied excitement began to surround the Johnson-Jeffries fight, one which would hold immense racial consequences, at least in the eyes of the public. This is because many viewed Jeffries as the “Great White Hope”, one whose civilization and virtue would triumph over the savagery and baseness that Jack Johnson represented. He carried the White Man’s Burden, and it was his duty to defeat Johnson and regain the championship title from a man who didn’t truly deserve it. Now, say what you will about Jack Johnson’s private life or his virtue, but there is no denying that he is one of the greatest prizefighters in history, and he most certainly deserved that heavyweight title. But to most fans of the day, however, the color of his skin said otherwise.

Ultimately, this fight was regarded as a battle for racial supremacy. If Jeffries were to win, fans believed it would cement the discriminatory belief that whites were superior to blacks in both intellect and physicality. If Johnson were to win, on the other hand, many feared it would cause African Americans to gain hope and pride in their race and possibly bring about a race war. This sentiment was felt by most white fans, but also by several conservative blacks, many of whom were admirers of Booker T. Washington. Johnson’s extravagant lifestyle discomfited them, and they believed he would disrupt the order they wished to achieve, as well as cause an eventual violent white reaction.

This attitude toward the fight makes one wonder why it had to define the superiority of one race over the other. Why couldn’t both be equal? Why did the talent of one man in the boxing ring have to define the supremacy of an entire group of people? Would there always be a battle to try to defeat the other race, fighting each other instead of working together? This belief in racial supremacy essentially captures the ideas behind race and equality (or lack thereof) of this time period, and shows all that was to be accomplished in the coming century. After all, when Jackie Robinson hit his first home run off a white pitcher, did that mean the black race had championed the white race? When Althea Gibson first won Wimbledon against a white opponent, were African Americans suddenly superior? Of course not. It doesn’t matter that a black athlete defeated a white one, nor would it matter if the situations were reversed. Rather, these achievements are noteworthy and groundbreaking because these athletes were given a chance to excel in their respective sports instead of being hindered by their race.

When African American athletes became champions, it proved that blacks had the same capabilities of whites to be the best in a sport, not that they were the best race. And ultimately, it was this attitude that would transcend athletics and take root in the civil rights movement. That whites and blacks are equal. That they deserve the same opportunities, the same chances to succeed. From there, achievements are merely representative of the individual, not the entire race to which they belong. In the end, all that matters is that each individual is treated with the same respect and equality as those around them, regardless of the color of their skin.

In the end, Jack Johnson would soundly defeat Jim Jeffries, reaffirming his status as the heavyweight boxing champion of the world. Did it bring about a race war? No. Were whites suddenly inferior to blacks? No. Did discrimination, segregation, and belief in African American inferiority continue for decades following this victory? Unfortunately yes, and it would be a long time before equality was finally achieved. What matters, however, is that it was achieved, at least as much as has been done up to today. Neither race is superior. Neither is inferior. And if we want to achieve ultimate racial equality, a battle that has been continually fought ever since Abraham Lincoln first signed the Emancipation Proclamation, then we must stop examining the question of racial supremacy. Let it rest. Stop dividing between racial lines, and instead look to blur these lines and merge into one race- the human race.


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 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… 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.