Black Athletes and the Civil Rights Movement

Richard Jefferson of the Cleveland Cavaliers against the Washington Wizards during a game on February 6, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Keith Allison, Flickr).

Elgin Baylor would not shut up and dribble. Baylor, who grew up in segregated Washington, D.C., had grown tired of accommodation. Instead, he believed that the best way to fight segregation was to make a dignified stand. Baylor boycotted that night’s game. He told the press that if the Lakers respected him as a man that they would not have booked games in the South in the first place. “I love basketball. I like playing in the league very much,” he stated, “but not at the expense of my dignity.”1 Although often overlooked in the history of athlete activism, and in fact omitted from LeBron James’s recently popular Showtime documentary on activism and basketball Shut up and Dribble (2018), Baylor’s actions became a watershed moment for athlete activism during the Civil Rights Movement.

Like any protest against racism that refuses accommodation as a tactic, Baylor’s boycott had its well-meaning naysayers who believed that Baylor should have played. These soft supporters scorned segregation, but still concluded that the best way to deal with Jim Crow was for the Black athlete to play instead of protest. Lakers owner Bob Short, buoyed by a belief that the Black athlete’s presence in integrated spaces was a powerful weapon to fight racism, argued that Baylor had a duty “to show his qualities as a great sportsman.” NBA President Maurice Podoloff supported Baylor’s right to boycott, but chose to publicly praise Baylor’s two Black teammates who had played the game. And one unnamed teammate told a reporter, “I admire that man’s willingness to stand for his conviction,” but added, “I think he let the team down by not playing.”2 Baylor, however, remained steadfast that he would stand for his dignity rather than play for Jim Crow. As he told teammate “Hot Rod” Hundley, who happened to be a native of Charleston, “I’m a human being. I’m not an animal put in a cage and let out for the show. They won’t treat me like an animal.”

And because Baylor fought back, the Black press hailed him as a civil rights hero. Black sportswriters understood the implications of Baylor’s move. For the first time since the mass Civil Rights Movement in the South, a star Black athlete in the prime of his career joined the fight. If  star Black athletes fell in line, the Black press believed, others would too. L.I. Brockenbury of the Los Angeles Sentinel, who believed Black athletes had a duty to get involved in the Civil Rights Movement praised,

“from where I sit, this was one of the most effective things I have ever known an athlete to do… By refusing to accept treatment afforded him at Charleston, Baylor told the whole country about bigotry and discrimination and pointed out how silly it can appear from a distance or from up close.”

The Black press was waiting for an athlete like Baylor to take a stand. In short, the Black press believed they had finally found their next Jackie Robinson. For them, Robinson represented the model for Black athletes; a fighter on and off the field who never backed down to Jim Crow. And with Baylor in the prime of his career, the Black press hoped that this activism would be the new model for Black athletes.3 In many ways, Baylor’s boycott was the bolt other Black athletes needed to get involved. The next decade would see a number of boycotts, or proposed boycotts, at the college and pro levels from Black athletes. Like Baylor before them, all of these athletes were willing to risk their careers to improve society.

In the immediate future, Baylor’s stance forced league owners to face the reality that this was a new era of Black athletes. A month after his protest, NBA owners agreed that unless promoters promised equal facilities for their players, NBA teams would not play in Southern cities. And, as the NBA found out, if the promoters did not hold up their end of the bargain, Black players would not play. In 1961, after a Kentucky hotel denied service to his Black teammates, Bill Russell, along with Black players from his Celtics and their opponents, the St. Louis Hawks, boycotted a game. When asked about his decision to fight Jim Crow, Russell reflected that accommodating to racism in the past had been a big mistake because “as long as you go along with it, everybody assumes it’s the status quo.”4

Baylor’s bold boycott showed Black athletes they had power in their protests. Today, as we see the increasing involvement of athlete activists, especially in the NBA, it’s important to remember the sacrifices some had to make. At some point, the movement will require more than wearing a T-shirt with a slogan. If these athletes decide to withdraw their labor to fight injustice, then history is on their side.

  1.  Quoted in Jim Hall, “Time Out,” Louisiana Weekly, January 31, 1959.
  2. “Laker Prexy Backs Up Balking Elgin Baylor,” New York Daily News, January 18, 1959.
  3.  L.I. Brockenbury, “Tying the Score,” Los Angeles Sentinel, January 22, 1959. Also see, Bill Nunn Jr., “Change of Pace,” Pittsburgh Courier, January 24, 1959; “Baylor Shows the Way,” Los Angeles Sentinel, January 22, 1959; Dan Burley, “Elgin Baylor,” Chicago Defender, January 21, 1959. For Jackie Robinson’s opinion on Baylor see, “Jackie Accuses Red Sox of Racial Bias,” Louisiana Weekly, February 7, 1959.
  4.  Edwin Linn, “I Owe the Public Nothing,” Saturday Evening Post Vol. 237 (2) (18 January 1964); 62.
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Louis Moore

Louis Moore is an Associate Professor of History at Grand Valley State University. He teaces African American History, Civil Rights, Sports History, and US History. His research and writing examines the interconnections between race and sports. He is the author of 'I Fight for a Living: Boxing and the Battle for Black Manhood, 1880-1915' and 'We Will Win the Day: The Civil Rights Movement, the Black Athlete, and the Quest for Equality.' Follow him on Twitter @loumoore12.

Comments on “Black Athletes and the Civil Rights Movement

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    Very inspiring!!! Thank you!!!!

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