Bill Keefe, a racist sportswriter from New Orleans, once said of Jackie Robinson that he was “the most harmful influence the Negro race has suffered in the attempt to give the Negro nationwide recognition in the sports field.”
Why this ire? Robinson dared to speak truth to power. The American icon had recently used his platform to call for the complete integration of the South. This set Keefe off. He looked at an activist athlete like Robinson as a problem. Success within baseball was not enough for Robinson. He understood that he was not free until every black person had freedom, and so he attacked racism on and off of the field.
We have a lot to learn from black athletes. The most successful, especially the racial barrier breakers like Robinson, are often used as a measuring stick for American meritocracy and democracy, not a barometer of American bigotry. The narrative of racial progress on the field, however, overshadows the lack of progress and the racism faced by everyday people at their jobs and in the streets.
America tells feel-good stories of black athletic heroes overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds and makes that on-field success the end goal, ignoring or eliding the progress yet to be made in broader American life.
No athletes elicited this feeling more than Jesse Owens, Joe Louis, and Jackie Robinson. All three triumphed as true representations of American exceptionalism. Jesse Owens beat Hitler in 1936. Joe Louis is frequently referred to as the first black man to be called American without any prefixes or hyphenations — “a credit to his race, the human race.” And Jackie Robinson integrated America’s game before America integrated.
But neither Jesse nor Joe nor Jackie beat Jim Crow. Louis wrote in 1947, after a decade of being the Heavyweight Champion of the World, “Prejudice is a funny thing. You can’t knock it out of people’s hearts and minds with KO punches. It’s buried deep inside. Like cancer. And so far they haven’t found the cure.”
Certainly, the black community supported the belief that the black athletes’ success was a force to fight for civil rights. In 1947, a black writer from Cleveland urged, “Sports are powerful factors for democracy and downright good in these United States,” and concluded that “Joe Louis or a Jackie Robinson have more gripping and moving effects on the thinking of the majority people than all of the long-studied and wise words of a W.E.B. Du Bois, a Walter White or an A. Philip Randolph.”
But for black people, the athlete was part of the struggle, a weapon in the fight for equality. As Martin Luther King Jr., wrote of Robinson, “He was a sit-inner before the sit-ins, a freedom rider before the freedom rides.” When it was time to join the battle, when the athlete’s performance was not enough, the black press pushed black athletes to get involved in the Civil Rights Movement. The black athlete represented a means toward civil rights, not an end.
Black Olympians have always highlighted our hypocrisy. Sports historian Edwin Henderson said it best in 1948: “The thousands who witness the Olympic games, the millions more who listen in and read about these exploits must sense the shame of keeping colored citizens in semi slavery in a so-called free country.”
Boxer Norvel Lee came home from the 1948 Games only to be kicked off a Jim Crow train in Virginia. He sued the state and won. Mal Whitfield, winner of Olympic gold in 1948 and 1952, grew so tired of American racism that he proposed black athletes boycott the 1964 Games. Wilma Rudolph won three gold medals at the 1960 Games, got the key to the segregated city of her hometown Clarksville, Tennessee, only to be arrested three years later for participating in a local sit-in. John Carlos and Tommie Smith famously raised their black fists in the air during the playing of the National Anthem at the 1968 Games to protest racism and inequality in America, and came home to death threats for exposing the fact that America had not lived up to the promise of democracy.
One of the most important lessons in studying the black athlete is that we should always listen to black women, who exist at the intersection of racism and sexism. In 1958, high jumper Rose Robinson boycotted a U.S. State Department track meet with Russia, because she refused to be used as a “political pawn” of democracy while her country treated her as a second-class citizen. We too often celebrate the image of Carlos and Smith raising without acknowledging that sexism and misogyny kept black women out of the prior conversations to boycott the Games. Wyomia Tyus, winner of back-to-back 100-meter gold medals in 1964 and 1968, celebrated for her supposed silence after her victory in 1968 as the media juxtaposed her image to Carlos and Smith, has publicly fought against racism and sexism for the last fifty years.
A month before Colin Kaepernick kneeled, Maya Moore and her Minnesota Lynx teammates wore Black Lives Matter t-shirts and forced the media to discuss the continued police killings of unarmed black men. And Serena Williams’s openness about her medical struggles with the birth of her daughter added a necessary conversation about an inadequate health system that has systematically refused black women equal service.
From Jackie Robinson telling Congress about the ills of police brutality in 1949, to Eric Reid continuing that same fight seventy years later, Black athletes have always had a lot to teach white America about structural racism, within sports and without.
America doesn’t always listen. The NFL blackballed Colin Kaepernick. Bill Keefe defended Jim Crow from Robinson.
In response to Keefe’s name-calling, Robinson, who was once court martialed for refusing to abide illegal segregation on a military bus, wrote a long letter about why he had to fight. He ended it by telling Keefe, “I am happy for you that you were born white. It would have been extremely difficult for you had it been otherwise.”