In 1946, Joe Louis, the heavyweight champion of the world, stood in front of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare and said what was on his mind. Never known for being loquacious, Louis lamented, “I hate Jim Crow. I hate disease. I hate the poll tax. I hate seeing people kept down because they are colored. I am not going to let this hate stay in my system, but I am going to help people fight Jim Crow and try to make this a better America. I am going to try to keep my punch in the ring as well as out of the ring.” These were powerful words from a mighty puncher. The most famous Black man in America had had enough. No need to fight Jim Crow tentatively. No need to counter punch. He went straight to the problem. Disenfranchisement of Black southerners, he later noted, had robbed Black Americans of their full citizenship. According to Louis, the Black vote stood as the best weapon to fight racial injustice, to end Jim Crow, and to eliminate the poll tax. The champ saw the vote as “a weapon against slavey and the best insurance for freedom,” and encouraged all Black folks eligible to vote able to do so, because as he reminded them before the 1948 presidential election, “your future and the fate of the nation just might hang in the balance.” Nearly 75 years ago, Louis articulated what many Black athletes have learned today in a post George Floyd-America. Black athletes, no matter how rich and famous, have contested citizenship. Like Louis, today’s athletes have chosen to fight their contested citizenship for themselves, and their community with the vote. There’s no greater example than the “More Than a Vote” program headlined by NBA superstar LeBron James and other leading Black athletes and entertainers.
Because Americans have believed Black athletes’ popularity could transcend American prejudice, Black athletes have had a heavy burden to bear in the fight for equality. For the longest time, community leaders asked them to stay away from activism, arguing that their presence as successful good-mannered athletes was their role to play in the movement. Their popularity as athletes, however, showed them limits of democracy and equality. They were still Black. America never let them forget that fact. As Jackie Robinson once said, “I know that I am a black man in a white world…. I know I never had it made.” But Robinson and other athletic stars knew their individual success was still intractably linked to all Black Americans. “No Negro has it made, regardless of his fame, position or money” Robinson frequently reflected, “until the most underprivileged Negro enjoys his rights as a free man.” For many of these athletes, they believed the Black vote was the lever for freedom for all.
In 2020, we have observed the stage in the river of athletic activism and the electoral process. This river of resistance is the story of Octavius Catto, a baseball player and civil rights activist in Philadelphia being murdered in 1871 trying to protect Black voters. It’s the story of heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, just months after destroying the “white hope” Jim Jeffries in the most significant fight in history, telling a group of would-be Black voters, “Elect the democrats. If they fail this year, then go back to the old men. The colored man needs favors from any of the parities, but all they want is the right men to represent them.” It’s the story of Jackie Robinson in 1960 calling other Black athletes who touted JFK “uncle Toms,” but turning around in 1963 calling the G.O.P a separatist party and fiercely alerting Black voters, “We must be aware. We must prepare by alerting others, but stepping up voter-registration drives in the North and South. We must do this, not alone for the Negro but also for the sake of our national integrity.” It’s the story of Muhammad Ali working with Martin Luther King Jr., in 1967 encouraging Black voters in Cleveland to register and vote for Carl Stokes. It’s the story of WNBA players, like the Atlanta Dream’s Elizabeth Williams, who during the 2020 season wore “Vote Warnock” shirts to support Democrat Raphael Warnock in his bid to defeat Atlanta Dream owner Kelly Loeffler for a Georgia Senate seat.
The history of the Black athlete and the vote is also the story of “More than a Vote;” the most important collaboration of Black athlete activism to date. In June 2020, behind the leadership of NBA superstar LeBron James, Black athletes and entertainers came together to form “More than a Vote” to fight voter suppression. Their mission statement states, “We are Black athletes and artists working together. Our priority right now is commuting systemic, racist voter suppression by educating, energizing, and protecting our community in 2020.” Since its inception, the organization has registered 42,000 poll workers, helped to open numerous sports arenas as polling stations that granted access to 298,000 voters, and worked to restore the vote to disenfranchised ex-felons. But they also know there’s more work to be done to fight contested citizenship. As WNBA player Renee Montgomery mentioned, “The place we’re going is to the polls, but after that, there’s still work to be done. Voting is not the only step; it’s just the first step. Arresting the cops for wrongdoings is a step, but it’s also a band aid for the real problem.”
The power of “More than a Vote” is that the athletes’ courage is contagious. For example, in the previous presidential election, only 20% of NBA players actually voted, but by the end of the 2020 season, 90% of the NBA had registered to vote. Black athlete activism, however, does not come without blowback. From President Trump to fans who claim they’ll boycott the specific sports forever because players simply advocated for full voting rights, the Black athlete has been told countless times to “shut up and play.” Instead of giving in to the naysayers, Black athletes involved in “More than a Vote” pushed forward. Seeing their courage to be “more than athletes,” I’m reminded of what Joe Louis told his audience in 1946. When he weighed into activism, he knew he had to take the hits fight his contested citizenship. Hearing he should stick to sports, the heavyweight champ countered, “Lots of people think that I’m doing all right as a fighter and that I should stick to my business. They mean all right,” the champ claimed, “but they don’t understand that fighting prejudice, disease and second-class citizenship is my business too.”