African-Americans in Sports During the 20th Century

By Darius Thornton

Professional sports are indisputably an important part of American culture. In a nation that loves the idea of competition, the spectacle draws in and capitavates massive audiences. For some, sports may be a temporary escape from the sometimes mundane reality of everyday life, or something they’re passionate about and study like a science, or perhaps something they enjoy talking or debating about with others. But for the athletes themselves, the professional stage provides them with the opportunity to test and show off the fruits of their honed natural talent and years of hard work. They get the chance to compete on the highest stage, against the best of the best, with all the bright lights and notoriety that come with it. However for a long time, African-Americans were denied this chance, across many leagues and many sports, for no reason other than blatant racism and prejudice. There was a hesitance to allow them to have the spotlight in any way, due to a mixture of hatred, fear, and ignorance. Yet now, that is no longer the case as African Americans have become dominant in the world of American sports. But how did such a titanic change occur? The answer has its roots in the integration of the sports that dominated the American cultural landscape at the turn of the 20th century.


Perhaps because of it’s somewhat simplistic (and some may say barbaric) nature, the sport of boxing was not one that was inherently segregated by law during the Jim Crow era. However, there was still a social resistance against the idea of African Americans fighting at the highest level and competing for titles. Boxing had come to America from England during the mid-19th century as a descendent of bare knuckle boxing. Professional boxing or “prize fighting” became a huge part of American entertainment culture; thus, there were many white Americans who took a sort of ownership over it. While African Americans were allowed to fight professionally, there was a stigma surrounding them that they were lazy and wild fighters who fought more like animals than men. There was doubt that they could succeed in what had been dubbed, “the manly art.” These were notions trumpeted by not only the primarily white audience, but by columnists in the newspapers of the era as well. But those doubts were squashed in 1908, when African American Jack Johnson defeated the Irish-born Tommy Burns in Australia to win the heavyweight championship. It was recognized as the most important title in the world almost universally, and it was a long time coming for Johnson who had wanted a title shot for years but was repeatedly denied due to his race. He became not just a fighter, but a symbol for the black community, as one of their own finally carved out a place in a great American sport.

But it also angered those who adhered to white supremacist ideology. The idea that a black man could be recognized as the best fighter in the world was not something that racists could accept. There was a feeling of embarrassment. Johnson’s personal life was also a point of contention as he openly dated and even eventually married a white woman, something that was considered taboo at the time. It is for these reasons that the overwhelming majority wished for Johnson to lose the title, specifically to a white man. Famed American writer Jack London said as much in a newspaper column, calling on retired boxer Jim Jefferies to opt out of retirement to “regain” the title for white men. In 1910, Jack Johnson would face Jefferies, dubbed “The Great White Hope” by the public in Reno, Nevada. In what had been hyped as “The Fight of the Century”, Johnson would quickly take control, and eventually knock Jefferies out in the 15th and final round. All the anger and humiliation these racists felt boiled over, resulting in riots and violence across the country in which African-Americans that celebrated Johnson’s victory were violently attacked. Most of the violence occurred in several of the nation’s major cities, such as New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Atlanta, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Little Rock and many more. This left an estimated 19 dead, with 17 being black and 2 being white, with hundreds more injured. In a way, it was representative of the collective mindset of the country at the time—that it wasn’t ready to see African-Americans in positions of perceived power.

This way of thinking would remain prevalent into the world of boxing even decades later, when another black heavyweight, Joe Louis held the title during the 1930’s. Louis and his camp had to construct a rigorous PR strategy that revolved around Louis being viewed a “good negro”, which meant always appearing “humble” and not publicly dating white women. Though, many still hoped a white fighter would defeat Louis and take the title. During the years of the Great Depression, African-Americans were one of the communities that suffered the most as they were often “last hired, first fired” in the workforce. For many, Louis served as a symbol of black strength and resilience at a time where things seemed bleak and hopeless. And his legacy would go on to inspire a new generation of black fighters, one of whom would one day stand above the rest.

Muhammad Ali (born Cassiuis Clay) is not only the most famous figure in boxing history, but one that that has transcended sports entirely. Hailing from Louisiville, Kentucky, Clay first captured the heavyweight championship on Febuary 25th, 1964 after knocking out Sonny Liston in what was considered to be one of the most stunning upsets in boxing history. Just four days after this hallmark victory, Clay boldly declared that he had converted to Islam, and was changing his name to Muhamad Ali, a name given to him by his new spirtual leader, Elijah Muhammad. This made him one of the first openly Muslim athletes in America. It wasn’t just Ali’s skill in the ring that captivated fans, but his incredible charisma and magnetic personality. He was also a champion for civil rights, using his platform as heavyweight champion to criticize the Jim Crow South and the way blacks were treated around the country. He knew and worked alongside notable figures of the Civil Rights Movement, like Malcom X. On April 28th, 1967, Ali publicly refused to be drafted into the Vietnam war, citing his religious belief and the hypocrisy of the U.S–expecting African-Americans to go out and fight to “preserve democracy” while they were being treated as second class citizens and denied basic rights in their own country. As he emphatically stated, “Ain’t no Vietcong ever called me n*gger.” For this, Ali was convicted of draft dodging in June of the same year, fined $10,000, sentenced to five years in prison (which was later greatly reduced) and banned from the sport of boxing for three years. He was willing to sacrifice his physical prime as a fighter and his title, just to make a stand. After returning to the ring in 1970, Ali would go on to have many more legendary bouts and capture the title two more times, becoming the first fighter to ever do so three separate times. After retiring for good in 1980, Ali was universally hailed as one of the greatest boxers of all time. Unfortunately, he had a lengthy battle with Parkinson’s later in life and died in 2016 of a respiratory illness. He was more than a fighter, as he was philanthropist and humanitarian as well, raising money for those in impoverished countries, as well as visiting soup kitchens, hospitals, and working alongside local organizations at home in America. Many of his fights raised money for those in need around the world and his defiance in the face of the government was one of the defining moments of the Civil Rights Movement. His daughter, Laila Ali carried on his legacy for a time as a professional fighter.


The game hailed as “America’s Favorite Pastime” actually excluded a large percentage of Americans for the better part of sixty years. The MLB (Major League Baseball) association did not allow African-Americans to play and neither did the minor leagues. This forced black players to form their own leagues, with their own teams, which came known as “Negro leagues.” These leagues did not receive anywhere close to the amount of attention and acclaim that the MLB or minor leagues did, which meant that the stars were not as recognized for their talent as they should have been. Negro league baseball players also had salaries that were just a fraction of what their white counterparts had, due to the financial limitations and lower salary cap of their leagues. Early Negro leaugues dealt with many financial hardships, and did not really find their stride until the late 1930s. However, it was from one of the league’s, that baseball’s premiere trailblazer would emerge. In 1947, Branch Rickey, general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers had a radical idea: He felt his team needed a bit more talent and rather than go with the “safe”, conventional choice, he used the opportunity to challenge the status quo and promote racial equality. On April 11th, 1947, the Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson, an African-American ballplayer who had recently had a stint in the minor leagues. And just four days later, Robinson made history by being the first African-American to start in a major league baseball game when he started at first base.

Jackie Robinson was chosen not only for his phenomenal talent at shortstop, but also for his temperament. It was expected that his presence on the field would cause him to be the subject of ridicule from racist fans and players alike. Robinson was chosen because he’d proven that he could endure such taunting and show restraint, not letting it affect his game. With his remarkable courage, he persevered, even after he began to receive anonymous death threats from disgruntled baseball fans. Robinson went on to have a hall of fame career, even helping the Dodgers capture the World Series title against the New York Yankees in 1955. Though he would retire in 1957 and pass away in 1972, his legacy still looms large today and went on to inspire many great black athletes, including another all-time baseball great.

The late Henry “Hank” Aaron would be signed from a Negro Leaugue team by the Miluawkee Brewers in 1954. His career would be legendary, as he is universally regarded as one of the greatest players of all time. He broke several MLB records, including RBIs (runs batted in), total bases earned, and extra base hits. However, he is most known for his stint with the Atlanta Braves and his crowning achievement of breaking the career home run record, previously set by baseball legend and American icon, Babe Ruth. On April 8th 1974, Aaron cracked his 715th career homer, breaking the record. Leading up to this, he had to endure hostility and racism from fans who didn’t like the idea of a black player surpassing the record of a “great American hero” like Babe Ruth. These sentiments were especially prevalent in the South–both during and after the era of Jim Crow. Yet having been born in Alabama, Aaron had been used to it. He received harsh words, jeers, and even threats (some of which were investigated by the FBI) but still moved forward to make history. Once again, an African-American was able to have one shining moment and a crowning achievement, not just in the world of sports, but a symbolic one in American culture.

There were other trailblazers of course, such as track star Jesse Owens and his historic victory in Berlin during the 1939 Olympics or Arthur Ashe becoming the first African-American to be ranked number one by the American Lawn Tennis Association. The NBA and NFL would each follow the MLB’s lead and integrate, which would change the fundamental foundations of both leagues forever. However, it was the triumphs of Jack Johmon that served as the precursor to Jackie Robinson being able to make a major league field, which in turn made black people competing in American sports possible. Without the integration of boxing and baseball, the concept of an African-American athlete participating in a sport which had long been exclusive to and dominated by white men would have remained a controversial and foreign one, and all those black kids who dreamed of making it may have been less likely to strive towards a goal deemed unrealistic. There would be no Hank Aaron, or Michael Jordan, or Jerry Rice, or Serena Williams, or LeBron James.


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