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

10

MORE THAN A GAME

The Political Meaning of High School Basketball in Indianapolis

Richard B. Pierce

SPORTS TEAMS ARE USUALLY best remembered for their competition record and the idiosyncrasies of team members. But the 1951 Crispus Attucks Tigers basketball team, a state championship semifinalist from a segregated, all-black high school in Indianapolis, Indiana, deserves closer scrutiny. The success of Crispus Attucks basketball teams made the school an institution that blacks and whites warily shared. Attucks's basketball success inspired considerable soul-searching in both the white and black communities, and in the end, Indianapolis residents learned that in addition to sharing common spaces they sometimes shared goals. Investigating Attucks's run to the state championship is more than an opportunity for nostalgic retrieval of past athletic glories. 1 Rather, such an examination allows scholars to integrate sports with the flourishing study of popular culture and examine how that culture shaped racial attitudes. 2 The widespread presumption that success in sports reflected well on a group's potential for citizenship and character shaped the understanding of Attucks's success in 1951 and inspired a range of responses. Black leaders in Indianapolis, in particular, self-consciously worked to parlay athletic achievements into more tangible gains. Their successes, and their failures, reveal the measured pace of racial progress in a midwestern city in the 1950s. 3

Why basketball means so much to Indiana residents is unclear, but the game has become central to the identity of many of the state's residents. James Naismith, who invented the uniquely American game of basketball while teaching in Massachusetts, claimed shortly before his death in 1939, "Basketball really had its origin in Indiana, which remains today the center of the sport." 4 In the case of Indianapolis and Attucks, however, there is an additional dimension; while the participants in basketball tournaments were playing games, to others, especially elders in the black community, tournaments were political activities. African-American communities throughout the United States had long debated the utility of employing athletic prowess to advance civic and social causes. Most notably, the media organs of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Urban League, the Crisis and Opportunity, respectively, advocated intercollegiate participation in sports as a way to display time-honored qualities of sportsmanship, loyalty, "manly character," and courage. The editors at the Crisis and

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