Tooele Transcript Bulletin – News in Tooele, Utah

February 15, 2023
How athletes helped shape the fight for civil rights in America over the years

Jesse Owens

During the 1930s, as Germany prepared to host the 1936 Olympics, Adolph Hitler sought to use the international games as an opportunity to showcase his so-called “superior” Aryan athletes.

Although America was contending with its own issues with race relations, 18 Black athletes were sent to participate in what was dubbed the “Nazi Olympics.” Among the athletes was Jesse Owens who not only won the most gold medals for his country, but also drew the ire of the German dictator and set the sta

After medaling in the 100-meter, 200-meter, the 4×100 relay and the long jump, Owens was famously snubbed by Hitler and allegedly snubbed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Hitler’s scorn for Owen’s success was 

“The Americans ought to be ashamed of themselves for letting their medals be won by Negroes,” Hitler said.

Despite the racially-charged controversy surrounding the events, little change was made in the American experience for Black citizens. However, it did set the stage for minority athletes breaking into the mainstream of the sporting world.

Jackie Robinson

Much like Owens, Jackie Robinson’s career as an athlete took place during a deeply divided time in American history and the onset of his experience as a professional baseball player was a microcosm of the treatment of his fellow Black citizens outside the realm of sports. 

After making a reputation for himself in the Negro Leagues, the oft-outspoken ball player was also a fierce defender of civil rights before becoming the first African American to break into the Major Leagues. Not only had he participated in sit-ins and , he was also court-martialed as a soldier for refusing to sit in the back of an Army bus.

However, once he became a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers in 19he was asked by the team’s president and GM, Branch Rickey, to refrain from retaliating against the racism and discrimination he would surely endure as a Black baseball player.

“I’m looking for a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back,” Rickey said. 

Over his 10-season career, Robinson won the Rookie of the Year award in 1947 and an award for Most Valuable Player in 1947. In addition to playing on the World Series-winning Dodgers and participating in a total of six World Series.

Muhammad Ali

Shortly after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law, America found itself entangled in the Vietnam War. Although the law enshrined the right for Black Americans to vote and prohibited racial discrimination, many forms of discrimination and segregation continued to divide the country, including in the military. 

Boxing legend Muhammad Ali put his career on the line when he refused to accept his being drafted to participate in the Vietnam War. Citing his religious beliefs as a Muslim as the primary reason for “dodging” the draft, Ali also condemned the war for proliferating 

“[My] conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud…,” Ali said. “How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”

While Ali never served any jail time, his actions cost him his heavyweight boxing title and banned from boxing for three years. After returning to the ring in 1970, Ali went on to win another title in 1974.

His actions cemented his status as one of the most vocal athletes in the history of sports and a devoted activist who fought for civil rights at home and abroad. 

Colin Kaepernik

In recent history, much national attention has been focused on police brutality towards Black Americans and a number of shootings and/or beatings that led to the deaths of Black men and women. As a response to these killings, many celebrities and athletes have publicly condemned and protested the and other racial injustices.

Using his platform as a professional football player, former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick joined the protests and caused controversy when he began sitting on the bench during the national anthem during the 2016 preseason. 

After a conversation with a former NFL player and Green Beret, it was determined that kneeling would be a more respectful gesture to the men and women of the armed forces. The decision by Kaepernick to shift his protests to taking a knee before each game became a weekly tradition which was adopted on a league-wide level.

Widely viewed as a result of his actions, Kaepernick was released by the 49ers and has gone the last five years without playing in the NFL.

Unfortunately, Kaepernick’s career is still in flux, as he is still without a quarterback role in the NFL. In the meantime, he has opted to use his free time to organize several protests, done charitable work in many underserved minority communities and has created documentaries for streaming services Netflix and Hulu.

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