Champions of Justice: We Can't Understand the Civil Rights Movement or the Women's Movement without Considering Muhammad Ali and Billie Jean King

By Zirin, Dave | Sojourners Magazine, August 2009 | Go to article overview

Champions of Justice: We Can't Understand the Civil Rights Movement or the Women's Movement without Considering Muhammad Ali and Billie Jean King


Zirin, Dave, Sojourners Magazine


THE NOTION THAT professional sports has anything to do with social justice and human rights would be seen as laughable by most members of the athletic community. Sports, we are told, are about escape, excitement, and a respite from the ills of the world. This is why Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren said, "I always turn to the sports pages first, which records people's accomplishments. The front page has nothing but [people's] failures."

But there is a rich tradition of athletes who commit to a life of good works, as well as "jocks for justice" who use the platform of sports to speak out about human rights. The examples are as diverse as they are extensive. From civil rights advocate Paul Robeson to suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, access to sports was central to their struggles for liberation. As Robeson remembered of his days desegregating the Rutgers University football team, "When I was out on a football field or in a classroom or just anywhere else, I was not there just on my own. I was the representative of a lot of Negro boys who wanted to play football and wanted to go to college, and as their representative, I had to show that I could take whatever was handed out."

Or as Cady Stanton wrote in the women's magazine The Lily, rejecting claims of a man's "physical superiority": "We cannot say what the woman might be physically, if the girl were allowed all the freedom of the boy in romping, climbing, swimming, playing hoop and ball."

Robeson and Cady Stanton were mere harbingers to a century defined by a rich, if under-discussed, history of athletes impacting the fight for social justice. It's impossible to think of the early days of the civil rights movement without considering Jackie Robinson, the African-American baseball player who broke the color line when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers. Robinson, said Martin Luther King Jr., was the original "pilgrim that walks in the lonesome byways toward the high road of freedom. He was a sit-inner before sit-ins, a freedom rider before freedom rides."

We also can't understand the movement against the Vietnam War without considering the great boxer and draft resister Muhammad Ali. He didn't want to go to Vietnam: "Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs? ... The real enemy of my people is here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people, or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom, and equality. If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people, they wouldn't have to draft me--I'd join tomorrow. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I'll go to jail, so what? We've been in jail for 400 years."

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Consider also the black-fisted salute of Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the medal stand at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.

Far more than a specific moment, Smith and Carlos were part of a movement known as the Olympic Project for Human Rights, formed by Harry Edwards (see "More Than a Game" page 22) to combat racism in sports as well as throughout the United States. The OPHR organized around concrete demands, such as the hiring of more black coaches, disinviting South Africa and Rhodesia to the Olympics, and the removal of International Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage, but they also had a broader goal in mind, as their founding statement put it:

We must no longer allow this country to use a few so-called Negroes to point out to the world how much progress she has made in solving her racial problems when the oppression of Afro-Americans is greater than it ever was. We must no longer allow the sports world to pat itself on the back as a citadel of racial justice when the racial injustices of the sports world are infamously legendary. …

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Champions of Justice: We Can't Understand the Civil Rights Movement or the Women's Movement without Considering Muhammad Ali and Billie Jean King
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