A People’s History of Sports in the United States: 250 Years of Politics, Protest, People, and Play

by Dave Zirin

Clock Icon 10 minute read

John Kennedy loved sports, or so he told us. The man with the dazzling smile and slender physique delighted in giving the country a vision of a president with boundless energy, athletic passion, and a penchant for touch football games. In Sports Illustrated, the youngest elected president in U.S. history made a plea—not unlike Teddy Roosevelt and others—against the “soft American.” In reality, Kennedy was plagued by crippling back pain, Addison’s disease, spastic colitis, and a need for painkillers in order to be able to function. This gap between image and reality—touch football for the cameras and debilitating medical problems behind closed doors—matches a decade that started with aspirations of a new frontier and ended with, as Howard Zinn put it, “a series of explosive rebellions in every area of American life, which showed that all the system’s estimates of security and success were wrong.”

As 1960 began, sports were still viewed as bedrock for the America of people’s dreams: a place where the best of muscled white male America came together to act as an exemplar for the rest of us in how not to be “soft.” But a new day was dawning that would turn these notions on their head. The leading edge of struggle in both the world of sports and in the streets was found in the arena of civil rights. Perhaps fittingly, one of the most prominent athletes of that year was an African American woman, Wilma Rudolph, who soared to superstardom after becoming the first woman to win three gold track-and-field medals in a single Olympics.

By 1960, the civil rights movement had reached an impasse. But on February 1, 1960, that changed when four black college students in Greensboro, North Carolina, sat at the whites-only Woolworth’s lunch counter. They were refused service, but rather than leave, they remained planted in their chairs. The owners shut the lunch counter down, but in the days that followed, the students returned repeatedly. Lit cigarettes were put in their faces. They were cursed, beaten, and threatened. But they had resolve, and thanks to a national media, their efforts were seen around the country.

“The students in that picture had a certain look on their faces, sort of sullen, angry, determined,” said an observer named Bob Moses, who would soon be a central participant in the civil rights movement “Before, the Negro in the South had always looked on the defensive, cringing. This time they were taking the initiative. They were kids my age, and I knew this had something to do with my own life.”

In the next year, more than 50,000 people, mostly black, some white, participated in demonstrations of one kind or another in one hundred cities, and more than 3,600 people were put in jail. You didn’t have to be a sports star to prove that you were no longer a “soft American.” You could be the kind of person who faced a terror most football players couldn’t comprehend. And you could win. By the end of 1960, lunch counters were open for business to those of African descent in Greensboro, not to mention many other places. A growing group of young people discovered that protest worked. People believed that what they did actually mattered. The glacial realities of “all deliberate speed” would no longer carry the day.

This spirit of change affected every aspect of American life, including the citadel of sports. Athletes actually had to defend their right not to be political. Willie Mays was criticized for not being vocal enough about racial discrimination. His response is fascinating: “I don’t picket in the streets of Birmingham. I’m not mad at people who do. Maybe they shouldn’t be mad at the people who don’t.”

Long before protest demonstrations became a national entity, Joe Louis was changing anti-Negro attitudes to pro-Negro attitudes. No American civil rights fighter has yet reached the 300 million (or more) people as Willie Mays does, around the world, in a World Series. Two years prior to the Supreme Court’s momentous school integration decision, Negroes starred in Southern baseball and three years prior to the Supreme Court decision, Southern baseball was integrated. Integrated baseball was seen and accepted in such states as Louisiana, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, and Virginia long before local authorities got around to serious consideration of overall democracy. Baseball fought segregated housing, eating facilities, segregation in other areas in the South.

In 1959, one of the NBA’s stunning new black players, Elgin Baylor of the Minneapolis Lakers, attracted national attention to the issue of segregation of public accommodations when he refused to play in a regular conference game scheduled in Charleston, West Virginia. He sat stoically on the team bench in street clothes to protest the refusal of a local hotel to permit him to register with his teammates.

It was a time of flux, including for Jackie Robinson. Robinson was a proud northeastern Republican, never more so when he was a guest at the 1960 Democratic National Convention and saw nominee John Kennedy sitting side by side with Orval Faubus, the Democratic governor of Arkansas and an arch segregationist. This confirmed his suspicions that there was nothing really new in Kennedy’s New Frontier. But Robinson would be disappointed time and again by Republicans’ “commitment” to civil rights. When Martin Luther King Jr. was sentenced to four months on a Georgia work gang, Robinson asked his friend Richard Milhous Nixon to intervene and was ignored.

Though disillusioned with both political parties, Jackie never stopped going to the front lines of the civil rights battles and encouraging African Americans to vote. On a speaking tour to raise money for the SNCC sitins, Robinson said in Tennessee, “We are going to get our share of this country—we are going to fight for it. We must take it step by step and support the youngsters in their stand-ins and sit-ins.” As the black freedom struggle grew and a revolutionary wing developed, Robinson, in spite of his actions, was viewed as a “white man’s Negro” due to his abiding faith in electoral politics and belief in integration. He was an icon of “the old way of doing things in the eyes of many.” He was especially a target of scorn because of his verbal feud with Malcolm X. Robinson was tough, never backing down in the face of Malcolm’s withering scorn. He wrote in his New York Post column, “Malcolm is very militant on Harlem street corners where militancy is not that dangerous. I don’t see him in Birmingham. . . . He is terribly militant on soapboxes and street corners yet he has not faced the police dogs or gone to jail for freedom.”

Robinson could not have known that he was touching on the pressure point of Malcolm’s pain and frustration with the political abstention of the Nation of Islam. Yet although they were political opponents, Robinson and Malcolm shared something in common: their ideas shifted in the struggles of the 1960s. Yet neither could have been prepared for the man who was about to impact both of their lives—not to mention the lives of everyone else.

Muhammad Ali’s identity was forged in the 1950s and 1960s, as the black freedom struggle heated up and boiled over. He was born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1942. His father, a frustrated artist, made his living as a house painter. His mother, like Jackie Robinson’s mother, was a domestic worker. The Louisville of 1942 was a segregated horse-breeding community where being black meant being seen in service-oriented jobs and rarely heard. But the young Clay could do two things that set him apart: he could box and he could talk. His mouth was like that on other no fighter or athlete or any public black figure anyone had ever heard. Joe Louis used to say, “My manager does my talking for me. I do my talking in the ring.” Clay talked, inside the ring and out. The press called him the “Louisville Lip,” “Cash the Brash,” “Mighty Mouth,” and “Gaseous Cassius.” He used to say he talked so much because he admired the style of a pro wrestler named Gorgeous George. But in an unguarded moment he once said, “Where do you think I’d be next week if I didn’t know how to shout and holler and make the public take notice? I’d be poor and I’d probably be down in my hometown, washing windows or running an elevator and saying ‘yassuh’ and ‘nawsuh’ and knowing my place.”

Ali, of course, could back up the talk. His boxing skills won him the gold medal in the 1960 Olympics at age eighteen. When he returned from Rome—and this was the first step in his political arc—the young Clay held a press conference at the airport, his gold medal swinging from his neck, and said: To make America the greatest is my goal So I beat the Russian, and I beat the Pole And for the USA won the Medal of Gold. Italians said “You’re greater than the Cassius of old.”

Clay loved his gold medal. Fellow Olympian Wilma Rudolph remembered, “He slept with it, he went to the cafeteria with it. He never took it off.” The week after returning home from the Olympics, Clay went to eat a cheeseburger with his medal swinging around his neck in a Louisville restaurant—and was denied service. As he later said, that medal found a home “at the bottom of the Ohio River.”

The young Clay actively looked for political answers and began finding them when he heard Malcolm X speak at a meeting of the Nation of Islam. He heard Malcolm say, “You might see these Negroes who believe in nonviolence and mistake us for one of them and put your hands on us thinking that we are going to turn the other cheek—and we’ll put you to death just like that.” Malcolm X was an attractive figure. His impatience, his militancy, his rejection of nonviolence, and his stony-eyed critiques of Democratic politicians and middle-of-the-road civil rights leaders gave him a following far beyond his organization.

Copyright © 2008 by Dave Zirin. This excerpt originally appeared in A People’s History of Sports in the United States, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.

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