An essential part of Black History Month’s celebration is recognizing and appreciating all of the people who had a hand in progressing the Black community. The sports world is home to many of these individuals. Over the past 100 years, Black athletes have continually made political statements — whether intentionally or not — that have broken down color barriers and intolerance across all sports, globally. This article will take a look at some of the bravest and most influential Black athletes from the 1920s to today.
The Struggle for Equality
Many consider the 1920s to be “The Golden [Age/Decade] of Sports,” but, as the Washington Post stated, it is more like ‘The Golden Era of White Sports.’ Black people were actively pushed out of sports or denied the ability to play, while White players thrived. It comes as no surprise, looking back from ‘still-no-equal-rights’ 2021, that Black people were still fighting to have the opportunity to do anything 55 years after slavery had been abolished, but it is appalling nonetheless.
However, this decade did not go without Black excellence. Fritz Pollard and Bobby Marshall became the first two Black athletes to play in the American Professional Football Association (now known as the National Football League). Pollard was both a player and a coach for Black and White teams. He organized the Chicago Black Hawks in 1928—the first all-Black, professional team, which remained very popular throughout the Great Depression.
Bobby Marshall was a 40-year-old lawyer in 1920, and he was a three-sport champion: baseball, hockey, and football; he was also a boxer. He was the first Black person to actually play a game in the NFL. He was also the first Black person to graduate Minnesota’s law school, play professional hockey, and serve as an assistant coach for both Gophers football and the Western Conference.
At this time, Black people were migrating to find work, and Black men were still being lynched. Pollard and Marshall did not have an easy time playing; they were harassed by the public, often on their way to games, and even attacked by players on the field, mid-game. The two were accustomed to defending themselves, but that does not lessen the severity of what they had to go through to have careers, and inspire Black people across the country.
Today, Jesse “The Buckeye Bullet” Owens is still recognized as one of the greatest track and field runners in history. His legacy began in 1933, when he was still in high school; he won three track and field events at the National Interscholastic Championships. A couple years later, he equaled one and broke three world records while competing for Ohio State University. Naturally, he qualified for the Olympics, where he won four gold medals and beat two Olympic records, one of which (8.13 meters in the long jump) he would hold for 25 years.
Given the time period of his achievements, his legacy was not left untampered by racism. Then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt failed to meet and congratulate him despite this being the norm for Olympic gold medalists. He also foiled Adolf Hitler’s ‘plans’ to prove the Aryan race to be superior by sweeping so much of the competition, and, unfortunately, faced scrutiny for it. He was finally recognized in 1976 by President Gerald Ford, who awarded Owens the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Despite the lack of recognition at the height of his career, he will likely always be famed as a game-changer in track-and-field, and the Black sports world in general.
We all know Jackie Robinson, the first Black player in Major League Baseball; the Quaker Campus has published an article dedicated entirely to him. Just before Robinson made baseball history at the end of the ‘40s, boxing gained another legendary, Black player. Joe “Brown Bomber” Louis is highly regarded as one of the most influential boxers of all time.
The timing of his achievements had a lot to do with this. Louis provided some comfort to Black people during the Great Depression, when finding and keeping work was extremely difficult for the Black community. In 1937, Louis earned the ‘Heavyweight Champion’ title — the first Black person to do so in 22 years. He went on to defend this title 13 more times.
His talent was just as important as his timing, though. Within a span of 17 years, Louis won 68 of the 71 matches he played, 54 of which were knockout wins. He was a symbol of strength and resilience in the Black community, and he gave plenty of people inspiration to continue fighting for rights and equality, given how much he was able to accomplish in a society filled with intolerance.
It is Aug. 25, 1950 at the U.S.’s biggest tennis event — the U.S. National Championships — and Althea Gibson, the first Black person to play in these Championships, is dominating the field. Gibson had a beautifully busy eight-year career from ‘50 – ‘58. Her major championships landed in the last two years of her career; in that time, she took home 11 titles within 19 major final appearances. Also by 1958, Gibson had won a total of 58 titles, combining singles and doubles. She was a major inspiration for women in tennis, eventually gaining fame and recognition for what no woman before her had done. A page dedicated to her on tennisfame.com reads: “What Jackie Robinson did for baseball [ . . . ] Althea Gibson did for tennis.”
Tennis was not her only famed sport. She retired in ‘58 and attempted to play tennis professionally, but there was not much money for women’s tennis at that time. She began golfing professionally instead, and became the first Black woman to join the Ladies Professional Golf Association tour in 1964. She did all of this before she turned 40.
Oct. 16, 1968 is one of the most important dates in Black sports history. The 1968 Olympics Black Power salute, a political protest by Tommie Smith and John Carlos, quickly became one of the most talked-about events in sports history. This protest was in solidarity with the way Black people were treated across the U.S., but especially the continual discrimination present in sports. Smith said, at a press conference following the event, “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.”
The whole world understood what Smith and Carlos did that night, though plenty were in protest of it. Insults were thrown at them as they stood in their Black Power stance, fists raised as the American National Anthem played. They were rushed off the podium, suspended, and kicked out of the Olympic Village — all because they used their moment to uplift Black people. They did not even speak, which Smith also commented on in 2008: “We had to be seen because we couldn’t be heard.” This is the equivalent of a celebrity using their platform to be political. It’s their choice — but, in the 1960s, it was still very looked down upon. Today, we recognize this moment as one of bravery and perseverance.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is a hero in sports and in journalism. He was a basketball legend for 50 years, holding titles such as the National Basketball Association’s all-time leading scorer and six-time champion, as well as the only six-time MVP in the league. He is a national sensation, giving talks all over the country and sharing his social and political opinions in major publications, such as The Guardian and The Hollywood Reporter. He is also the chairman of his Skyhook Foundation, “whose mission is to ‘give kids a shot that can’t be blocked’ by bringing educational STEM opportunities to underserved communities.” In 1967, he was part of the Cleveland Summit — a coming together of Black athletes to discuss Muhammad Ali’s refusal to fight in the Vietnam War, which, eventually, all were in support of. This even showed incredible Black solidarity, as, at the time, Ali was hated by both Black and White Americans. Abdul-Jabbar has been an incredible activist since the ‘70s, and the past 50 years have not slowed him down at all.
Earvin “Magic” Johnson Jr. has a very extensive timeline of professional accomplishments. In the ‘70s, he earned the nickname ‘Magic,’ granted to him by Sports Writer Jack Stabley, after a particularly fantastic game at Everett High School, where he managed 36 points, 16 rebounds, and 16 assists at 15 years old. He kept the same energy throughout his career, winning various NBA championships and MVP titles. Five years after his retirement (due to contracting HIV, which he has been a consistent activist for for over 20 years), Johnson was named one of the NBA’s 50 best players, and he is still gaining recognition for his talent on the court today. He has an extensive list of business achievements as well, such as partnering with Starbucks to create Urban Coffee Opportunities and hosting The Magic Hour, both in 1998. His achievements are too much to put into one article that is not focused entirely on him, but the link above has a very organized timeline of everything Johnson has been recognized for throughout his career.
An inspiration to gymnasts everywhere, Dominique Dawes is a three-time Olypian (the first Black woman to win an individual medal in gymnastics) and an Olympic Gold Medalist (the first Black person to have this title for gymnastics). She is extremely inspired by her four children, who she says motivate her to do everything she does, such as upkeep the Dominique Dawes Gymnastics Academy — “a safe, supportive and empowering gymnastics and ninja gym for all!” As an enthusiastic mother and lifestyle advocate, this academy is for and about children; Dawes is raising the next generation of fantastic gymnasts.
The Williams sisters have been dominating the tennis world since the early 2000s. In 2002, the sisters held the first and second spots for top tennis players in the world. Both are Wimbledon champions; Serena has won seven times, while Venus has won five times. In the past 20 Wimbledon tournaments, at least one of the Williams sisters has made the finals. The sisters play so incredibly well that their losses in 2017 (Venus) and 2018 (Serena) resulted in shock and disbelief from the media.
Venus and Serena are two highly influential tennis players, and they are both very strong figures for women in sports. They are arguably the most famous and successful siblings in sports today; the two even have a ‘professional rivalry’ as the top tennis players despite being so intertwined in the media for their individual accomplishments.
In August of 2016, Colin Kapernick was the first of many to take the knee during the National Anthem, in protest of police brutality and other forms of violence and oppression against Black people. Today, Kapernick is an activist with a flurry of giving-back-to-the-community actions to his name. He founded the Know Your Rights Camp, which was originally funded out of his own pocket. Its mission is to “advance the liberation and well-being of Black and Brown communities through education, self-empowerment, mass-mobilization and the creation of new systems that elevate the next generation of change leaders.” He has personally donated over a million dollars to organizations fighting for justice and COVID-19 relief, and he continues to support fellow Black people every day.
The Future of Sports
Sports has looked quite weary since the beginning of the 2020 decade. We lost Kobe Bryant. COVID-19 destroyed the normalcy of open stadiums, frequent games, and the ability for players to meet, practice, and play. We were still trying to escape the Trump era, which had a major impact on the political sphere of athletics. Although we as a country are trying to get back on track, the future is still highly uncertain. With so many great athletes on the benches, and potential superstars waiting to properly join the professional world, we cannot foresee the future, but we can hope that it will be just as groundbreaking and inspiring as the past 100 years have been.
Featured Image: Courtesy of The Undefeated