The History of Black Athletes and Activism

Throughout the 20th century, the civil rights movement empowered black athletes to use their power and influence to stand up against social injustice. Those same athletes have paved a way for the athletes of the 21st century to keep the pressure on society and promote social change. 

This timeline shows the evolution of the black athlete and the rise of political activism in the African American sports community.

Below are the most influential black athletes who fought through adversity and brought upon social change, equality and justice through sports:

August 3-9, 1936 – Track and Field athletes Jesse Owens and Mack Robinson, brother of Jackie Robinson, participated in the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany. During this time, Nazi Germany was in its early stages but their bigotry was already on full display. 

Nazi Dictator Adolf Hitler strongly believed Jewish athletes should not be allowed to participate in the Games and most Jewish athletes were prevented from taking part in the festivities. 

Hitler saw the Olympics as an opportunity to promote Nazism and his ideals of racial supremacy and antisemitism, but Owens and Robinson sought to prove him wrong. Despite heavy opposition from the NAACP, Owens traveled to Berlin and won four gold medals. Robinson went on to win the silver medal and broke the record in the 200 meter while finishing 0.4 seconds behind Owens.

The bravery and success of Owens and Robinson during the Olympics inspired hope in many and put an end to Hitler’s delusion of Aryan supremacy. 

April 15, 1947 – Professional baseball player Jackie Robinson became the first African American to play Major League Baseball (MLB) in the modern era. 

The baseball color line was established in 1887, forcing black players from Major League Baseball and the Minor leagues affiliated with them out of baseball. 

Despite the racial discrimination, many black baseball players created their own baseball leagues called “Negro leagues” and Robinson became of the finest players the Negro leagues had ever produced.

Prior to the 1947 season, Robinson was called up to the Brooklyn Dodgers and despite receiving heavy racial abuse from fans, media, opponents, and even some of his own teammates, he went on to have a storied career featuring nine seasons, six All-Star selections, Rookie of the Year, NL MVP and a World Series championship. 

1950-1958 – Professional tennis player Althea Gibson is known for being the first African American to win the French (1956), Wimbledon (1957–58), and U.S. Open (1957–58) singles championships. 

Gibson proved herself as an elite player early on when, in 1942, a year after she first began playing tennis, won her first tournament, the American Tennis Association (ATA) New York State Championship. 

After her first championship in 1942, Gibson won two more championships in 1944 and 1945. Those victories preceded a stretch of ten straight national ATA women’s titles, spanning from 1947-1956.

Even though Gibson was among the best female tennis players in the world, she could not receive an invite to any of the major tennis tournaments. She participated in white-managed events and was always cheated out of gaining the points needed to advance to nationals.

It wasn’t until fellow tennis player, Alice Marble wrote an intense letter stating that it was a travesty that Gibson was “not being judged by the yardstick of ability, but by the fact that her pigmentation is somewhat different.” 

In 1950, Gibson became the first African American to receive an invitation to the United States National Championships (now the US Open).

Her entrance received widespread attention and even through the derogatory remarks from hecklers and the eventual second round loss. Gibson proved she belonged. In 1958, she retired from amateur tennis after winning 56 national and international singles and doubles titles.

April 28, 1967 – Professional boxer Muhammad Ali was the reigining WBA, WBC, The Ring, and lineal heavyweight champion but, in 1967, Ali refused to serve in the Vietnam War. 

Ali was known for his braggadocious personality and smooth fighting style. Outside of the ring though, he was a social justice pioneer. 

When the Vietnam War broke out, Ali, a converted muslim and anti-war activist, spoke against America’s intervention, his potential draft status, and racial discrimination. 

“My enemy is the white people, not Viet Cong or Chinese or Japanese. You my opposer when I want freedom. You my opposer when I want justice. You my opposer when I want equality. You won’t even stand up for me in America for my religious beliefs and you want me to go somewhere and fight, but you won’t even stand up for me here at home?” Ali said. 

After refusing his official induction into the U.S. military, Ali was arrested and found guilty of draft evasion. Ali was later stripped of his heavyweight belt and had his boxing license suspended. Ali was rendered unable to box for over three years.

Ali brought his case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which overturned his conviction in 1971.

Ali’s objections to the war and his fight for civil rights inspired many black athletes to follow in his footsteps and in 1970, Ali returned to the ring. 

Upon his return, Ali solidified his place as one of the greatest boxers of all time. He remains the only three-time lineal heavyweight champion and his records of beating 21 boxers for the world heavyweight title and winning 14 unified title bouts stood for 35 years.

October 16, 1968 – Track and Field athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos participated in the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, Mexico. 

Smith, who won the 200 meter sprint gold medal in record-breaking fashion, and Carlos who won the bronze medal in the same event, took to the podium during the medal ceremony shoeless, faced the U.S. flag and then each raised a black-gloved fist until the U.S. national anthem had finished. 

Their black power salute was in response to the rampant racism and plight surrounding African Americans in the United States. Smith and Carlos received harsh criticism for their protest, including death threats. Both later went on to have brief NFL careers. 

November 14-27, 1973 – Professional tennis player Arthur Ashe is the only black man ever to win the singles title at Wimbledon, the US Open, and the Australian Open. 

Ashe combated social injustice on a much larger scale then fellow pioneer Althea Gibson. Tennis’ marketability increased after the years of Gibson and Ashe, who was one of the best tennis players at the time, embraced the spotlight.

He used his platform to fight racial discrimination, but in a way that was very passive then some would like. His passivity caused controversy among some members of the black community who labeled him an “Uncle Tom.”

Nonetheless, Ashe fought for black people not just in America but in Africa as well. South Africa, which believed in the Apartheid system, was perhaps even more racial segregated then America was at the time and Ashe sought to help integrate South Africa as well as remove racial barriers. 

After being denied a visa by the South African government three times, Ashe was finally able to travel to South Africa to participate in the South Africa Open. 

His appearance in South Africa inspired many black South Africans to keep fighting for change. 

March 12, 1996 – Professional basketball player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, previously known as Chris Jackson, was the third overall pick in the 1990 NBA Draft and a rising star in the NBA. He was named to the All-Rookie Second Team in 1991 and won Most Improved Player in 1993.

Abdul-Rauf’s once promising NBA career was cut short after he decided to sit during the pregame national anthem. He stated his protest stemmed from his belief that the U.S. flag was a symbol of oppression and America’s anti-Islamic beliefs.

Abdul-Rauf’s protest sparked outrage and he was suspended by the NBA for his refusal to stand during the U.S. national anthem. After his suspension, he would stand during the national anthem, close his eyes and look downward while reciting a prayer. 

After the 1996 season, Abdul-Rauf was traded to the Sacramento Kings, where he only played two seasons before playing in Turkey. He played one more year of NBA basketball in 2001 for the Vancouver Grizzlies before being out of the league entirely. 

March 23, 2012 – Members of the Miami Heat donned hoodies as a call of action to persecute George Zimmerman, a Hispanic man who racially profiled African American teenager Trayvon Martin and killed him. Martin was wearing a hoodie when he was attacked by Zimmerman. 

The incident happened in Sanford, Florida, which is almost fours hours away from the Miami Heat’s home arena. The proximity of the incident to the team motivated the players to take a stand.

November 30, 2014 – Members of the St. Louis Rams, now known as the Los Angeles Rams  ran onto the field during player introductions with their hands up in remembrance of Michael Brown, a black man who was slain by police officer Darren Wilson after Brown put up his hands and said “Don’t shoot” during an altercation. 

The incident happened in Ferguson, Missouri, which is only 14 minutes away from where the Rams played their home games. 

As civil unrest and riots began to flood the streets some members of the Rams decided that the gesture was needed as a way of showing support to the community of Ferguson. 

The St. Louis Police Department condemned the players involved in the demonstration and demanded that the NFL discipline them, which the NFL did not. 

December 8, 2014 – Professional basketball players LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Kobe Bryant, and Derrick Rose among others across the NBA donned “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirts as a way to remember Eric Garner, a black man who was strangled to death by police officer Daniel Pantaleo .

The leaguewide protests were in response to the Richmond County grand jury deciding not to indict Pantaleo. 

The protests, which went on without penalty, reflected the power and influence wielded by today’s athletes, especially in the NBA.

December 14, 2014 – Professional football player Andrew Hawkins wore a shirt pleading for justice for the deaths of both Tamir Rice and John Crawford III, two African American males who were shot to death by police officers while carrying fake guns. 

Both incidents happened in close proximity to the Cleveland Browns and Hawkins took it upon himself to call for action. 

Cleveland’s police union criticized Hawkins’ actions and demanded an apology. Hawkins refused saying “a call for justice doesn’t warrant an apology.”

July 9, 2016 – Members of the Minnesota Lynx, New York Liberty and Phoenix Mercury began wearing Black Lives Matter t-shirts before games to protest recent police shootings.

After police departments criticized the teams involved, the WNBA started fining players for protesting but the players refused to remain silent. 

Then WNBA president Lisa Borders withdrew the fines stating, “While we expect players to comply with league rules and uniform guidelines, we also understand their desire to use their platforms to address important social issues.”

Aug. 26, 2016 – Professional football player Colin Kaepernick was the starting quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers and led them to Super Bowl XLVII in 2012. 

After six seasons in the NFL, Kaepernick was blackballed from the NFL for refusing to stand during the national anthem, kneeling instead. 

Kapernick was protesting police brutality and racism in America, but some people believed he was protesting and purposefully disrespecting the U.S. Armed Forces; a statement he clarified wasn’t the case. 

Kaepernick gave up his football career to fight for social injustice and his sacrifice empowered athletes from sports around the globe to join in the fight and promote change.

Trey Avant is a contributing writer for the Paradigm Press. For information regarding this or other stories, email or tweet him @TreyAvant3.

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