Low key artistic strong man on a black background.
Cover Image © Ahturner

My Black Perspective #7: Activist Athletes

As America readies itself to see two professional football teams compete for the top prize at tonight’s Super Bowl, I felt this was an appropriate time in this series to commemorate a few Black Activist Athletes and their legacy. I am not a sports analyst (haha – me, a sports analyst?!), but I’ll try to do the subject justice.

Jackie Robinson (1947)

If I don’t time-bound this somehow I’ll end up all over the place, so let’s start in 1947 with Jackie Robinson. If you go by the movie Chadwick Boseman (RIP) played in, when it came time to integrate American Baseball – they were looking for a Black guy who could take the abuse (publicly) he was about to undergo as he transitioned into the MLB. Brooklyn Dodgers’ general manager Branch Rickey selected Jackie as that player and selected him from the Negro LeaguesKansas City Monarchs baseball team.

a postage stamp printed in USA showing an image of Jackie Robinson, CIRCA 1999

Was this an act of protest, courage, arrogance, correcting injustice, or defiance on the parts of Mr. Robinson & Branch Rickey? The jury is honestly still out on that one. I have found that different sources will tell you different things. But – one thing that no one argues about is the impact of Jackie Robinson’s presence in the majors. He broke the color barrier and opened doors for Black People in many other walks of life in America. I have never been a huge baseball fan, but I have to salute Jackie, and even Branch, for the bravery that must have taken in that era.

Bill Russell (1961)

“I am coming to the realization that we are accepted as entertainers, but that we are not accepted as people in some places.”

Bill Russell (1961)

Those were words that Bill Russell told reporters back in 1961 when asked about an incident in which two Black players on his team (Boston Celtics) were refused service at a restaurant because of their skin color. As the story goes (in-brief), Sam Jones and Thomas Sanders were both refused service at a coffee shop at a hotel the team was staying in.

Infuriated by this when he found out, Russell took a stand and let the team’s coach know that he and the other Black players wouldn’t be playing. Others joined in, and even Black players from the opposing team that night refused to play. This was huge during the time because Black People weren’t expected to complain openly about moments of discrimination. After the game boycott, Russell had this to say…

“We’ve got to show our disapproval of this kind of treatment or else the status quo will prevail. We have the same rights and privileges as anyone else and deserve to be treated accordingly. I hope we never have to go through this abuse again. But if it happens, we won’t hesitate to take the same action again.”

Bill Russell
(Speaking to reporters about the boycott of a game in 1961)
Bill Russell speaking at NAACP headquarters in 1964.

Russel would go on to be vocal about a number of issues specifically impacting Black People during the time – especially involving discrimination. He was a big man with a big platform, and he refused to stand on the sidelines.

Muhammad Ali (1967)

Muhammad Ali refusing to be drafter into the Vietnam War… WOOOOOOOO!

I’ll let the video speak for itself. But I want to add that this moment in Ali’s life also led to an amazing photo of many legendary Black Athletes of the time supporting Ali, en masse, on the record.

A number of Black Athletes in support of Muhammad Ali's refusal to fight in the Vietnam War (1967).
Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown presided over a meeting of top African-American athletes who supported boxer Muhammad Ali’s refusal to fight in Vietnam. Pictured: (front row, from left to right) Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali, Brown, Lew Alcindor [Kareem Abdul-Jabbar]; (back row from left to right) Carl Stokes, Walter Beach, Bobby Mitchell, Sid Williams, Curtis McClinton, Willie Davis, Jim Shorter, and John Wooten.” (Caption Text Credit: TheUndefeated.com)

Tommie Smith and John Carlos (1968)

A picture is worth a thousand words

Black athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raise gloved fists at a medal ceremony during the 1968 Summer Olympics.

Watch the video I linked to above. There’s A LOT happening in this photo that I just didn’t know about. It is an amazing moment in sports history. Just… wow.

And then… A Lot Happened

I’m going to do a time skip, and encourage you to check out this article from The Undefeated. I’m not a big fan of rehashing things that are already out there in amazing fashion, and this article is really well done. I’d prefer to let them shine, and encourage you to look at.

Black Sports Activism Didn’t Start With Kaep

If the stuff above, or the article from The Undefeated didn’t make it clear that Black Athletes were protesting on behalf of those Black People without a visible platform in America, maybe this video from The New Yorker (in 2017) will shed a bit more light…

I am BEYOND PROUD of Colin Kaepernick and what he stood (or rather, knelt) for. The honestly BS sacrifice he’s had to make in his career. It’s admirable and has made him a villain in the eyes of a certain set of America — but he’s a hero in my eyes.

When LeBron James and the Miami Heat took took this photo and posted it to Twitter


The “I Cant Breathe” shirts worn in the NBA in 2014.

The WNBA‘s stance on sports activism.

This was ALLLL before Kaepernick.

What he represents isn’t new — no — what he represents became “novel” and noticed because of the current racially-charged environment in the United States. And I’m thankful to him, and all of the athletes before, and now, for all of their efforts to raise awareness on social justice issues and fight for a more equalized world. Whether they are Black, Non-Black, man, woman, or non-binary – I am truly thankful that someone who makes far more money than the average Black American gives a damn, and is willing to help bring national attention to things that, at the end of the day, just aren’t right.

Thank you for the use of your platform, and for putting your career on the line. Not just for Black People – but for everyone.

That feels like a good spot to end this one. Please check out the links and videos posted throughout this post. I guarantee you that you’ll come across something you didn’t know about.

Peace, and thanks for reading.


The soundtrack for this post provided by…

Image Credits:
– Cover Image © Ahturner (Shutterstock)
– Body Image 1 © MM_photos (Shutterstock)
– Body Image 2 © Hal Sweeney (The Boston Globe/Getty Images)
– Body Image 3 © Tommy Tomsic (Getty Images)
– Body Image 4 © Rich Clarkson (Getty Images)

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