Meet… Wilma Rudolph

“Never underestimate the power of dreams and the influence of the human spirit. We are all the same in this notion: The potential for greatness lives within each of us.”

Wilma Rudolph knew a thing or two about adversity. Throughout her life, she had to overcome being crippled at a young age, poverty in her youth, the discrimination of being a woman, and the prejudice she faced as an African American. Yet through it all, she remained strong and steadfast, eventually rising above her challenges to become a celebrated Olympic athlete and a role model to young girls across the nation, both black and white.

Wilma Rudolph

Wilma Rudolph was born in rural Tennessee in 1940, one of 22 children (from two of her father’s marriages). As a young child, she suffered from pneumonia, scarlet fever, and eventually polio, leaving her without the use of her left leg by the age of 6. Because of this affliction, she was forced to wear leg braces, although she spent most of her time trying to take them off. Every day, one of her many siblings would massage her leg, and she travelled 90 miles round trip each week to receive treatment for her crippled limb. Although she went on to suffer from whooping cough, the measles, and chicken pox, she eventually gained enough use of her leg to discard the braces and wear a special shoe instead. Wilma was determined to live life as a regular kid, however, and within a few years she had discarded the shoe as well.

Such persistence and determination manifested itself throughout her athletic career. Rudolph took up the game of basketball and emerged as a star on the girls’ team at the all-black Burt High School. Her exemplary play and remarkable athletic ability eventually led the Tennessee State track coach, Ed Temple, to take an interest in her as a track athlete. Rudolph began attending the college practices while still in high school, then went on to enroll at Tennessee State in 1957. Wilma fell in love with running and began gaining national attention for her performances on the track. She qualified for the 1960 Olympics in Rome, and it was there that she would finally burst forward onto the world track scene and emerge as an international athlete.

Wilma Rudolph 2

In Rome, Wilma Rudolph became the first American woman to win 3 gold medals in an Olympics. There, she earned a gold medal in the 100 meters, the 200 meters, and the 4×100 meter relay, earning the title of “World’s Fastest Woman” along the way. Almost immediately, she became a media darling. Dubbed “The Black Pearl”, fans and press alike flocked to her in Rome, and subsequent competitions across Europe brought hoards of fans to watch her perform. That year, she was also named the Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year, as well as the United Press Athlete of the Year. Rudolph’s immense international popularity paved the way for other African American athletes, especially minority women, as she inspired young girls across the US to play sports and break into the world of track and field.

Pres. John F. Kennedy and Wilma Rudolph meet at the White House

Pres. John F. Kennedy and Wilma Rudolph meet at the White House

When she returned home to Tennessee following her legendary performance in Rome, Wilma Rudolph was invited to a celebration headed by Governor Buford Ellington, a prominent segregationist. Rudolph refused, saying she would not attend a segregated event. Later, a parade and celebration of her accomplishments in her hometown of Clarksville would become the first integrated event the city had ever seen. By establishing herself as  a universal hero and champion athletic figure, Rudolph was able to unite her fans behind her in ways that had not previously been accomplished, whether they were white or black, male or female. She set a new precedent for not only the black athlete, but the female as well, allowing those who had previously suffered from prejudice and discrimination in the world of sports to emerge in their own ways.

The most notable of these was Florence Griffith Joyner, an African American track star who would also go on to win three gold medals in the 1988 Olympics. Rudolph recognized her influence and was extremely proud of the accomplishments made by Joyner. “It was a great thrill for me to see,” Rudolph said. “I thought I’d never get to see that. Florence Griffith Joyner — every time she ran, I ran.” Ultimately, Rudolph’s exemplary grace, calm, and courage would establish her as one of the most prominent and influential African American athletes of the 60’s, one who set a new precedent for minority female athletes and inspired girls across America to pursue their goals in the face of discrimination.


Works Cited:

Roberts, M.B. “Rudolph Ran and World Went Wild.” ESPN: The Worldwide Leader in Sports, n.d. Web. 25 Jan. 2013.


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

Meet… Jesse Owens

“Although I wasn’t invited to shake hands with Hitler, I wasn’t invited to the White House to shake hands with the President either.”

The Berlin Olympics of 1936 were Adolf Hitler’s show. At least, they were supposed to be, until a 22 year old African American sprinter named Jesse Owens decided to show up and become the first Olympian ever to win four gold medals. You see, Hitler had been using the international spotlight of Germany’s Olympics to proclaim his ideals of Aryan supremacy to the world. His abundant propaganda was challenged, however, when Jesse Owens established himself as the dominant athlete of the Games and proved that the white race was in no way superior.

The grandson of slaves and the son of share croppers, Jesse Owens was raised in a family in which he was expected to pick 100 pounds of cotton a day by the age of seven. As he grew older and began to attend high school, he soon emerged as a dominant and extremely gifted track athlete. Due to such athletic prowess, he went on to attend Ohio State and set four world records as a track star there. Indeed, during his junior year he entered 42 track and field events and won every single one of them. It was only a matter of time before he arrived in Berlin to compete on the world’s stage as an Olympian.

Unsurprisingly, the German attitude towards Owens and his fellow African American teammates was extremely negative. In fact, one German official went so far as to claim that America was allowing “non-humans, like Owens and other Negro athletes” to compete in the Games. This did nothing to deter Owens in his pursuit of victory, however, and he went on to win his first gold medal in the 100 meter dash against his fellow African American, Ralph Metcalfe. The next day, he went on to compete in the long jump, capturing the gold in that event as well.

Perhaps most remarkable about this event is the man who won the silver medal behind Owens, a German named Luz Long.During the competition, he gave Owens advice on his jumps, helping him qualify for the final after a rough start for the American. Then, when Owens bested him to win the event, Long was the first to congratulate him, proving that not all Germans shared Hitler’s racist beliefs. Indeed, Owens himself was not ignorant to the significance of Long’s kindness.”It took a lot of courage for him to befriend me in front of Hitler,” Owens said. “You can melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn’t be a plating on the 24-karat friendship I felt for Luz Long at that moment. Hitler must have gone crazy watching us embrace.”

Owens would go on to win two more gold medals in the 200 meter dash and the 4×100 meter relay. Rumor has it that Hitler was so incensed by this triumph that he stormed out of the Olympic stadium, and that he later snubbed Owens by refusing to congratulate him or shake his hand. Ultimately, he was angered by Owens’ success and the fact that a black man had been able to upend his prominent philosophies. But, in the end, this is to be expected. After all, Jesse Owens was a black man from America who had defeated Hitler’s fellow Germans on their own soil. What is most intriguing, however, is the way Owens was treated upon his return home to America as a four time Olympic champion.

Following his emergence as an American Olympic hero, Jesse Owens returned home to much fan fare and celebration. At least, it appeared that way initially. He may have been an American hero, but in the eyes of those around him he was still a black man and thus inferior. This attitude is perhaps best characterized by Owens’ experience at a dinner that was being held in his honor. He was allowed to stand before the crowd present and accept the applause on his behalf, yet when it came time for the meal to be served, he was asked to leave because it was not considered socially acceptable for a black man to eat alongside whites. Additionally, despite the fact that nearly everyone in the country knew his name and face, no endorsements came his way following the Olympics. With no other source of income, the greatest Olympian of the time was forced to participate in races against horses and dogs in order to make money.”People said it was degrading for an Olympic champion to run against a horse, but what was I supposed to do?” Owens said. “I had four gold medals, but you can’t eat four gold medals.”

Looking back, it is amazing to think of our country’s social attitude at this time, and it makes one wonder if we were any better than the Nazis. An African American was able to become the greatest athlete in the world and represent his country on the international stage, and yet he was still treated as an outcast due to the color of his skin. Indeed, when he was winning he was an American to his fellow countrymen, yet when he returned home he was viewed first and foremost as a black man. Owens recognized this, and in later years he publicized his discrimination not by the Germans at the Olympics, but at home by other Americans.

Thankfully, Jesse Owens is remembered today as one of the greatest Olympians of all time, a man who shattered racial barriers and proved to Hitler and other Americans that racial supremacy is nonexistent, and that anyone can become champion with hard work and perseverance, regardless of the color of their skin.


Works Cited:

Schaap, Jeremy. Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler’s Olympics. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007. Print.

Schwartz, Larry. “Owens Pierced a Myth.” ESPN: The Worldwide Leader In Sports. ESPN, n.d. Web. 12 Nov. 2012.

Hodges, Dan. “Jesse Owens: The Olympic Superstar That Keeps Soaring.” The Telegraph. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Nov. 2012.

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… Tommie Smith

“I had no regrets, I have no regrets, I will never have any regrets. We were there to stand up for human rights and to stand up for black Americans. We wanted to make them better in the United States.”

Tommie Smith, a track and field legend, said this after a controversial protest that he and fellow American teammate John Carlos launched at the 1968 Olympic Games. After coming from nothing, Tommie Smith emerged as a high profile track star in college, and eventually went on to compete in the Olympics. It was there that he and Carlos sparked a protest for social and racial equality that would forever change not only their lives, but also the role of African Americans in athletics.

After placing 1st and 3rd, respectively, in the Olympic 200 meter final, Tommie Smith and John Carlos decided that as members of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, they should use this opportunity to take a stand for equality.

When Smith and Carlos walked out of the stadium tunnel, they each held their shoes behind their backs and wore black socks, as a symbol of the black poverty they and others had come from. Tommie Smith wore a black scarf in order to show black pride, and John Carlos had his jacket unzipped to show his solidarity with all the blue-collar workers. Carlos also wore a beaded necklace that, as he said, “was for those individuals that were lynched, or killed and that no-one said a prayer for, that were hung and tarred. It was for those thrown off the side of the boats in the middle passage.” (The middle passage is the term referring to the trip captured Africans were forced to make from Africa to America to become slaves).

They received their medals, and then, as the National Anthem began to play, lowered their heads and raised one black gloved fist to crowd, performing what was later called “The Black Power Salute”. Their silent gesture of social and racial equality extended throughout the entire National Anthem, and when it was finished they each bowed to the boo’s emanating from the crowd, and turned and walked out of the stadium. Tommie Smith said of the gesture, “If I win, I am American, not a black American. But if I did something bad, then they would say I am a Negro. We are black and we are proud of being black. Black America will understand what we did tonight.”


This stand for equality was not without repercussions. The Olympic chairmen were furious that such an action had been taken, especially by and for African Americans. As a result of their actions, both Tommie Smith and John Carlos were kicked off the U.S. Olympic team and expelled from the Olympic Village. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) stripped them of their medals and banned them from all other Olympic competition.

When they travelled back to their homes, they and their families received constant death threats. They were also social outcasts. Tommie Smith’s mother later died of a heart attack as a result of her stress from receiving manure and dead rats in the mail from local farmers. John Carlos’ wife committed suicide because she could not stand life as an outcast. But never once did either of the two men regret their actions.


Tommie Smith was a man who spoke out for social equality, without speaking at all. He answered the cry for help among those discriminated against, without giving out a cry himself. As the great Arthur Ashe said, he “forever changed the image of the black athlete” in a silent gesture that stood out among the chaos of the turbulent year of 1968. Because at the Summer Olympic Games of that year, along with fellow civil rights leader John Carlos, he raised one black gloved fist to the crowd, as the National Anthem played, and changed the path of racial discrimination forever.




Aaseng, Nathan. “Smith, Tommie” African American Athletes, A to Z of African Americans. New York

Hartmann, Douglas. Race, Culture, and the Revolt of the Black Athlete, University of Chicago Press, 2003

Slot, Owen. “Olympics: Tommie Smith and John Carlos Warn of the Price of Protest” The Times April 12, 2008 Times Online April 14, 2009

Smith, Tommie and David Steele Silent Gesture Temple University Press, 2007

“Smith, Tommie”. Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia 2009. Grolier Online, 25 March 2009