In the early part of the century when the racist mentality was that blacks were not only lazy and inferior to whites, but that they were physically inferior as well, Jack Johnson a black boxer blew that mentality right out of the spectrum when in 1908 he became the first black heavyweight champion of the world.
Whites could not accept this shocking fact and looked to quickly correct this issue. The mass media immediately started promoting the concept of looking for the “great white hope” to “restore order to the boxing world.” The national attention got former champion, Jim Jeffries to come out of retirement. He was quoted as saying, “I am going into this fight for the sole purpose to prove that a white man is better than a Negro.” The fight was the most anticipated event in the country.
The night of the fight the band played, “All Coons Look Alike To Me” and the chants from the 25 thousand all white crowd were, “kill the nigger.” You could only imagine the hysteria when Johnson easily knocked out Jeffries to retain his title. After the fight there were race riots throughout the country. These riots were more like lynch mobs. It was estimated that one hundred and fifty people died. In his book, A People’s History of Sports in the United States, David Zirin described this event, “This reaction to this boxing match was the most widespread racial uprising that the United States had ever seen—or ever would see until the assassination of civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King
Since then there have been many other incidents where like Johnson, black athletes have had the courage to stand up for racial and social equality. The latest one that I want to highlight is Colin Kaepernick, Quarterback for the San Francisco 49’rs who led national anthem protests back in 2016 against police killings of blacks by taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem. Again, as in 1908 whites reacted by burning his team jersey and he was blackballed from the league despite the fact that he had 18 total touchdowns and just four interceptions in his final season with the 49ers.
I remember that I went out that summer and bought a Kaepernick jersey just to support and prove that while some wanted to burn his jersey, some of us were supporting his actions and would be proud to wear it. I remember the stares I would get from some white folks when I wore his jersey their disdain was visible. However, I also remember receiving many thumbs up from whites and blacks as well.
My point is that while Black Lives Matter and other groups has correctly taken to the streets and have made the issue of George Floyd a national concern for all of America to finally address the issue of police brutality and racial inequality we must also give praise and recognition to so many athletes who had the courage to use their national, or international fame to also raise racial and social justice issues that not only received national coverage, but also cost these individuals much in their careers and also cost them financially. Tommie Smith and John Carlos black salute in the 1968 Mexico Olympics cost them their Gold Medals and their Track careers. Who can forget, Muhammad Ali and Roberto Clemente who were also quite vocal for their beliefs and also paid a price for their outspokenness? These are just some of the many who left their comfort zones to speak up for something they believed in during a time that made them an outcast to society. Others like Puerto Rican baseball player, Carlos Delgado of the Toronto Blue Jays who would sit out the 7th inning of the singing of God Bless America to protest the U.S. war in Iraq.
I write and dedicate this column to all those sports icons who stood up to an injustice and who probably never received the positive attention and heartfelt thanks that they deserved.
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