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Celebrating MLK Day: Remembering African-American Athletes

FILE: Jackie Robinson
Library of Congress

Arguably the greatest moment in sports is when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball in 1947 for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Today, Robinson remains the only Major League Baseball player to have his number retired by every team.

Robinson played one season in the Negro Leagues before Branch Rickey called up Robinson to play for his Dodgers. Rickey was best known for his conversation with Robinson that motivated one of baseball’s bravest players and leaders to stay strong amidst adversity.

Rickey’s conversation with Robinson went like this:

  • Rickey: “Robinson, I know you’re a good ballplayer. What I don’t know is whether you have the guts.”
  • Robinson, “Mr. Rickey, are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?”
  • Rickey: “Robinson, I’m looking for a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back.”

Robinson was often threatened, racially abused, harassed, fans and players shouted derogatory terms, and some opposing players and teammates threatened to not to play against him for being African-American among white baseball players. Robinson’s support came from Rickey and Dodgers manager Leo Durocher, and his teammate, Pee Wee Reese. Reese famously put his arm around Robinson showing his support for Robinson.

Sports has had many other famous African-Americans that have succeeded and paved the way for the future of African-Americans in sports. Their image hasn’t always maintained a positive image, but they have inspired many young African-Americans to overcome past circumstances to be a role model for future African-Americans.

Who comes to mind when you think of African-American athletes that faced racial inequality? These African-Americans are pioneers, inspirational figures, and have displayed perseverance, courage, discipline, talent, resilience, and kept strong and tough in difficult circumstances.

Arthur Ashe became the first African-American tennis player to win in singles at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, or Australian Open, and was an activist for AIDS.

Jesse Owens competed at the 1936 Olympic games despite Hitler attacking America for using African-Americans in the games. Owens won four gold medals at the games.

Muhammad Ali was a boxer, philanthropist and social activist. He grew up in the South, and was publicly criticized for refusing to go to Vietnam for his religious beliefs. He was nicknamed “the Greatest,” and won an Olympic gold medal, and was the first and only three-time Heavyweight champion.

Other notable African-American athletes is Jim Brown on the football field, Joe Louis in boxing, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, or Julius Erving on basketball court, and Hank Aaron on the baseball diamond.

Over the last 20 years, African-Americans have changed sports that many Americans are more familiar with.

Magic Johnson won five NBA titles, and is a spokesman for HIV-AIDS. Serena and Venus Williams have won four Olympic gold medals, and have combined for 22 Grand Slam singles titles. Michael Jordan won six NBA titles and was a two-sport athlete. Tiger Woods has won 14 majors in golf. Barry Bonds broke Hank Aaron all-time home run record and Mark McGwire’s single-season home run record. Kobe Bryant won five NBA titles and has surpassed 30,000 career points. Ray Lewis has won a Super Bowl, has over 1,500 career tackles, and is a born-again Christian while overcoming a difficult childhood and alleged murder. Amidst the steroid era, Derek Jeter has stayed clean and hit over 3,000 career hits. LeBron James is the present image of young African-American athletes and has won a NBA title, gold medal, NBA MVP, and NBA Finals MVP all in one season.

For many African-American athletes, they would not be as well-known today in sports if it weren’t for the first pioneers that paved the way for their success. Martin Luther King, Jr. said it best by saying, “I have decided to stick to love…Hate is too great a burden to bear.” Everyone deserves an opportunity and a chance to succeed and to do so, we must love, accept, and appreciate African-Americans in sports.

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