By Wil Haygood
In modern American history, it has always been unwise to try to eliminate activism from the presence of the black athlete. When former San Francisco 49ers Quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the National Anthem in protest of deadly police shootings of unarmed black civilians — and other painful racial incidents across the country — he was branded a malcontent and rebellious presence. His action has turned into a movement. It did not matter that the president of the U.S. referred to these athletes who copied Kaepernick’s actions — and who were joined by most of their white teammates — as “SOBs” and howled that they should be fired. The demonstrations have continued. For the black athlete, amateur or professional, these times stretch far beyond the cinematic moment.
The dynamic can be traced to the rise of Joe Louis, who in 1937 was crowned boxing’s heavyweight champion of the world by whipping James Braddock in a Chicago bout. A black fighter, Louis had given black America — relegated to second-class citizenship as the American flag flapped beautifully from small town to big city — a sense of keening pride. His brown fists were considered ornaments of patriotism, especially when Louis defeated Germany’s Max Schmeling.
Shortly into WWII, the American military set up the War Department on Negro Affairs. The Army was segregated; the Department of Negro Affairs had just one official. It decided to send Louis, now in the Army, on a tour of military bases to boost morale. A few other black boxers in the military, the great Sugar Ray Robinson among them, went on tour with Louis. In 1944, the group found themselves on an Alabama Army base. One afternoon a group of soldiers were lolling at the front of the base gate waiting for a bus into town. Sgt. Louis, tired of waiting, stepped into a phone booth, nominally used only by white soldiers. When Louis exited the phone booth, a white military policeman berated him. “Soldier, your color belongs in the other bus station,” the policeman barked. Then he raised his billy club to Louis. With a tiger’s quickness, Robinson went for the policeman’s neck. There was shouting, bodies tumbling, the policeman on the ground yelling. MP’s quickly arrived. Louis and Robinson were escorted to a general’s office and threatened with disciplinary action; the word “court martial” was mentioned. But military brass pondered the fallout from meting harsh discipline upon two black sports celebrities who were defending their right to be treated with dignity. No charges were ultimately filed.
The Negro Press — what it was called then — through the years consistently covered stories of black athletes and activism. Whenever black college athletes integrated a southern college athletic team in the 1960s, it made news in the black press. There were also admirable stories of white college teams refusing to go play southern teams who had told them to keep their black players home. Of course quite a loud roar erupted in 1968 when John Carlos and Tommie Smith, medal winners at the 1968 Mexico Summer Olympics, raised their balled fists on the podium in a display of protest against American discrimination and racism. Newsweek had a cover story that very year: “The Angry Black Athlete.”
All of that anger, of course, flowed from decades and decades of oppression. And also the slow pace of progress. Consider that the Alabama Crimson Tide football team — rolling every Saturday like its nobody’s business — didn’t sign its first black football recruit until 1971, seven years after passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
For the past few years I’ve been researching a book about the triumphs of an all-black high school in Columbus, Ohio, and the beautiful things that happened inside that school in 1968-1969. It all happened in the aftermath of the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr., and Bobby Kennedy, both of whom had marched in the school’s neighborhood. East High School would win two state athletic championships that very year — a year of ferocious turmoil and racial pain — in basketball and baseball. (They also won acclaim in an academic competition.) Most of the mothers of those high school athletes had come to Columbus to escape brutal conditions in the American South. They knew well the story of Emmett Till, a black kid murdered for whistling at a white woman in rural Mississippi the summer of 1955.
History trails the black athlete like smoke. The indomitable American flag can and will endure their stance on behalf of equality and justice.
Wil Haygood is Washington College’s 2017-18 Patrick Henry Writing Fellow. Haygood, Boadway Scholar-in-Residence at Miami University, Ohio, has written for The Boston Globe and The Washington Post. His article, “A Butler Well Served by this Election,” was the basis for the award-winning film, “The Butler.” While at WC, Haygood is working on “Tigerland: The Miracle on East Broad Street,” a book that details America in 1968-69 by looking at a segregated all-black high school in Columbus.