Sport and the Color Line: Black Athletes and Race Relations in Twentieth-Century America

By Patrick B. Miller; David K. Wiggins | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

Athletics is the universal language. By and through it we hope to foster a better and more fraternal spirit between the races in America and so to destroy prejudices; to learn and to be taught; to facilitate a universal brotherhood.

-Howard University Hilltop, April 29,1924

By applauding [Jackie] Robinson, a man did not feel that he was taking a stand on school integration, or on open housing…. But…to disregard color even for an instant, is to step away from the old prejudices, the old hatred. That is not a path on which many double back.

Roger Kahn, The Boys of Summer (1973)

THE YEAR 2003 marks the hundredth anniversary of the publication of W.E.B. Du Bois's Souls of Black Folk, a work of both lamentation and prophesy best remembered for its assertion that "the color line" would be the problem of the twentieth century. Intolerance and inequality pervaded the racial landscape at the turn of the last century, and it would be difficult to overstate the ruthlessness used to reinforce white supremacy. Du Bois was not alone in alluding to the lynching of black men and the sexual violence against African-American women as everyday acts of terrorism. Racial activists, South and North, could also map the contours of segregation-in education, housing, and employment, as well as on trains and in hotels and restaurants-as matters of custom even where they were not fortified by the laws of the land.

Yet at the same time, black Americans were enormously energetic on their own behalf. Just as they protested the incivility and barbarism that revealed the depth of racism nationwide, they also found ways to engage with mainstream institutions. Many racial reformers carefully studied the Constitution, the Congressional Record, and the history of American jurisprudence, constantly invoking the principles of equality and opportunity-whenever they appeared in official statements-to challenge Jim Crow segregation and to condemn the betrayal of the ideal of democracy in the United States. Between the era of Emancipation and what has been called the Second Reconstruction of the 1960s, moreover, African-American leaders exalted higher education not only as a mechanism of economic mobility, but also as a means of asserting their claims to first-class citizenship. Significantly, too, they enlisted their accomplishments as competitors in national pastimes in the larger civil rights crusade-to prove equality on the playing fields as well as in broader fields of endeavor. Nearly half a century after Du Bois's pronouncement, Jackie Robinson would display his remarkable athletic skills in "baseball's great experiment." For many Americans, black and white alike, the desegregation of major league baseball represented the most important symbolic breakthrough in race relations before the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v.Board of Education.

The history of "muscular assimilationism" was never a simple story, however. And it certainly did not end in 1947 when Robinson first donned a Brooklyn Dodgers uniform. Today, virtually no one denies that the opening of mainstream American sport to the full participation of African Americans-as well as of other people of color and, of course, of all American women-has been a slow and often wrenching process. Since the civil rights

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