The Black Athlete in the Freedom Struggle

Jackie Robinson, 1954 (Library of Congress: Bob Sandberg)

Conversations in Black Freedom Studies (CBFS) is a monthly discussion series held at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Curated by Jeanne Theoharis and Komozi Woodard, the series was established as a space to discuss the latest scholarship in Black freedom studies, bringing the campus and community together as scholars and activists challenge the older geography, leadership, ideology, culture, and chronology of Civil Rights historiography. In anticipation of the discussion on the Black Athlete in the Freedom Struggle, scheduled for December 5th, we are highlighting the scholarship of three of their guests.

Louis Moore is Associate Professor of History at Grand Valley State University. He teaches courses in African American History, Sports History, and Gender History. He earned his PhD from the University of California, Davis in 2008. His books include 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.

In 1968, Wyomia Tyus became the first person ever to win gold medals in the 100-meter sprint in two consecutive Olympic Games, a feat that would not be repeated for twenty years or exceeded for almost fifty. Her memoir, Tigerbelle: The Wyomia Tyus Story chronicles her journey from her childhood as the daughter of a tenant dairy farmer through her Olympic triumphs to her post-competition struggles to make a way for herself and other female athletes. Tigerbelle helps to fill the gap currently occupying Black women’s place in American history, providing insight not only on what it takes to be a champion but also on what it means to stake out an identity in an often hostile world. Tyus’ exciting and uplifting story offers inspiration to readers from all walks of life.

Named one of UTNE Reader’s “50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Our World”, Dave Zirin writes about the politics of sports for The Nation magazine. He is their first sports writer in 150 years of existence. Winner of Sport in Society and Northeastern University School of Journalism’s “Excellence in Sports Journalism” Award, Zirin is also the host of Sirius XM Radio’s popular weekly show, Edge of Sports Radio. Dave Zirin is, in addition, a columnist for SLAM Magazine and The Progressive. One of Zirin’s most recent books, written with Super Bowl Champion Michael Bennett, is Things that Make White People Uncomfortable (Haymarket Books, 2018).

CBFS: For our upcoming conversation, we’ll be talking about the Black athlete in the freedom struggle. We’re lucky to have not only scholars and authors with us, but Olympic athlete Wyomia Tyus, who made history. Can you each tell us a bit about your books and how you came to write these histories?

Wyomia Tyus: For Black women, simply becoming an athlete is an enormous struggle and a significant triumph. It goes against our racist and sexist society’s need to keep Black women invisible and silent, and, because of this, Black women athletes are denied their history. People may know about Serena Williams, but they don’t know about Ora Washington and Althea Gibson, who also played phenomenal tennis and were criticized for speaking their minds while male athletes got a pass. They may know about Caster Semenya being kept from competition because of the uniqueness of her body, but they don’t know about Tidye Pickett and Louise Stokes being denied Olympic opportunities because of the color of their skin. The part of this hidden history that I know best is my own experience as a Tigerbelle. Most people don’t know that the Tigerbelles came out of the deep South, from poor families, at the very start of the Civil Rights Movement and went on to become not only Olympic competitors but also college graduates. What we Tigerbelles did and how we did it is something the world in general — and young Black women in particular — need to know. That’s why I wrote my book.

Dave Zirin: I’m just fascinated with how we can understand the world in which we live through the lens of the games that we love. And so I’ve written ten books about the politics of sports. My most recent book, Jim Brown: Last Man Standing is about the political life of football legend Jim Brown. I attempt to examine Brown’s politics starting from his experience building “Black Economic Unions” during the Civil Rights Movement, to the way he organized his teammates for players rights, to his years as an advocate for criminal justice reform, to his time as a Hollywood action star, and finally to the twisty road that today makes him a prominent supporter of Donald Trump. I also look at Brown’s history of violence against women and make the argument that you can understand his personal problems by understanding his political trajectory. I think that Brown offers a window into a strand of Black economic conservatism that’s tied into notions of manhood.

Louis Moore: The goal in writing We Will Win the Day was to create a synthesis of the rich history of the connection between the Civil Rights Movement and the Black athlete. This meant telling the stories of familiar figures like Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali, but also filling in gaps in this narrative, in particular including Black women and their impact in sports and on the movement. To accomplish this, I researched Black magazines like Negro Digest, Ebony, and Jet, and Black newspapers like the Michigan Chronicle, Houston Informer, and the Louisiana Weekly. I looked at coverage from 1945 to 1968, starting with the signing of Jackie Robinson and ending with the Olympic protest by John Carlos and Tommie Smith. During this research I found a lot of underreported stories that I knew were important in retelling this narrative, so I decided to employ a thematic approach. This allowed me, for example to tell the stories of people like Maggie Hathaway and her fight to integrate golf for Black women, in the same light as Jackie Robinson. Moreover, while I was writing the book, we were in the middle of what people were calling the second revolt of the Black athlete, where players had started actively calling out injustice in society, especially police brutality. I wanted to tap into this moment, while drawing comparisons to the past. It’s why I started the book with Cleveland Indian’s pitcher Mudcat Grant getting suspended in 1960 for protesting the National Anthem, and I end the epilogue with Colin Kaepernick.

Wyomia Tyus with Olympic Medals, 1968

CBFS: Given the rich cast of characters and long history you explore, can you share a story of a particular struggle or a figure from these struggles that our readers might not be familiar with?

Wyomia Tyus: Few of the Black women I write about, myself included, are household names, and it is important to know our stories. But I also want to emphasize the role that a Black man played in helping Black women to overcome their invisibility and silence: Mr. Temple, the Tigerbelles’ coach, not only saw a way for Black women to use athletics to get their education, get out of poverty, and have a chance in a world that was totally stacked against them, he made it happen. He created a world-class Black women’s track program out of nothing. He gave hundreds of young Black women a way out of no way and a means to act as role models for the millions of young Black women who could benefit from their example. He taught us the value of mutual support, the importance of persistence, and the undeniable strength of knowing and speaking our own minds. He also taught us the meaning of inclusion: some of the girls he brought onto the team were not great athletes. But they still needed an education, and they all played a role. Mr. Temple did all this without a thought for his own gain or self-promotion.

Dave Zirin: I think the story of Roseanne Robinson is fascinating. In 1959, she became the first athlete to refuse to stand for the anthem before a sporting event. Robinson was a track and field athlete. Her protest was against the Cold War and the hyper-militarization taking place in the United States. The work of scholar Amira Rose Davis has been critical in reviving Roseanne Robinson for a contemporary audience. Robinson was later arrested as a war-tax resister and underwent a hunger strike while in prison. There is so little recorded history about Black women in sports that remembering narratives of people like Roseanne Robinson are critical in the process of correcting this reality. I certainly believe that Wyomia Tyus’ history as well ranks among those whose histories we need to study so we can understand the complexities of race, class, and gender oppression and how these realities were both navigated and challenged in the world of sports.

Louis Moore: Maggie Hathaway was an actress in Hollywood and started playing golf in the mid-1950s after she won a bet against Joe Louis. As part of the payoff, he purchased her clubs. She was instantly hooked on the sport. But as a Black woman in Los Angeles, she was Jim Crowed from playing in local leagues. In response, she led a protest with her playing partners that ultimately integrated the courses for Black women. Hathaway continued to fight for Black golfers’ right to play in the game across the country, formed the Militant Allied Golf Association (MAGA), and even took on the PGA. Los Angeles eventually named a public golf course after her. She was involved in the Black freedom struggle beyond her own sport. When Black activists were protesting the Washington Redskins for refusing to sign Black players, she was on the frontlines of the movement boycotting a preseason game between the Rams and Redskins in Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Sentinel, a Black newspaper, printed a wonderful picture of her protesting the game. She would later help Jim Brown organize his Black Economic Union.

CBFS: Considering the continuing fight for Black freedom today, how does this history help us understand or even act in our current moment?

Wyomia Tyus: I believe that the lessons we learned as Tigerbelles — the lessons that many Black women athletes have had to learn just to get where they are — are crucial to today’s movements for Black freedom. In 1915, Black activist Mary Burnett Talbert noted that: “By her peculiar position, the colored woman has gained clear powers of observation and judgment — exactly the sort of powers which are peculiarly necessary to the building of an ideal country.” This is no less true today. And it is why the players of the WNBA consistently protest police brutality despite the fact that they rarely make headlines. I also believe that being involved in sports helps all women to overcome the effects of sexism. Any history that encourages Black girls to find their way to sports will help them to come into the struggle for freedom with a better knowledge of their special strengths and abilities and how to use them. Finally, this history lets us see things like the recent attack on gymnast Simone Biles’ skills as “too risky” as not just an isolated assault on excellence but one more link in a long chain designed to choke out the influence of strong Black women.

Dave Zirin: I think it helps us because right now there is a new generation of athletes who understand that their hyper-exalted platform can be used for more than just commercial purposes. They are in fact becoming cognizant of their own power. Yet many of them are also coming to realize that they are not the first ones to ever dare step out. In fact, the most storied athletes of the 20th century — people like Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, Billie Jean King, and Wyomia Tyus — understood their political strength as athletes. As for Roseanne Robinson, it’s a terrific example for everyone that NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick did not invent the wheel when it comes to using the stage of sports and the national anthem to express dissent. When we know the history of changemakers, we are stronger for it because it demonstrates that we stand upon the work of those who came before us.

Louis Moore: The history reinforces the reality that star athletes have a role to play, because the community fought for their rights too. As one Black sportswriter said in 1959, “The present group of Negro stars are not in the majors just because they can hit a ball or run fast … . It’s because over the years Negroes, many of whom could play no sports at all, fought and picketed and paid their money to the NAACP and the Urban League and prayed for integration.” In other words, there’s a debt of gratitude that athletes owe to the long history of freedom fighters. To pay that debt, I believe, athletes should use their platforms to fight for social justice along with the community. I also believe that by studying the activist athletes of the past, we can learn from their mistakes. The biggest tragedy in their moment was that they largely ignored women. That should not have happened then, and it cannot happen now. The beauty of today, is that Wyomia Tyus, ignored in 1968, has a platform. And we should listen to her. We should also make room for her narrative and pay attention to the Maya Moores’ of this generation.

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