The Missouri Victory for Racial Justice is just the most recent example of the intersection of sports and politics
Editors Note: This article will focus on how the struggle for racial justice has intersected with organized sports. We in no way want to downplay or minimize the role that students and faculty played in the victory at the University of Missouri. We want to focus on the power and possibility of using sports as a context for radical organizing by looking at examples from history, particularly around racial justice struggles.
Organized people can defeat organized money. The recent victory at the University of Missouri is a powerful one. Students, faculty and the Black members of the football team all engaged in a campaign to get the school’s president to resign over racist practices on campus.
It’s a powerful victory and should be seen as a clear example of how we can effect change and even take on powerful institutions. Granted, before we get too excited, we’ll have to wait to see what the longterm outcome is with the resignation of University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe.
However, we should celebrate the victory and recognize the power of students and faculty engaging in an organized campaign to demand racial justice on campus. Students in particular laid the ground work to make space for both faculty and football players to increase the national profile of demands. When ESPN makes this the lead story on TV and online, you know it is a serious issue. Not that ESPN is a terribly credible news source, but they do represent a part of mainstream culture which means that they reach lots of people who might not normally think about racial politics. Indeed, there were two main factors that led to the eventual resignation of University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe. One was the deep commitment that students had around this campaign. The other one was the growing national awareness of the racist practices that are taking place on campus. Both of these factors threatened the financial well being of the University of Missouri, which ultimately was the bottom line for any action being taken. This is precisely why we need to learn from the rich history of athletes using sports as a platform to fight for larger social justice issues.
A People’s History of Sports in America
I highly recommend the book by left sports writer Dave Zirin, A People’s of Sports in the United States. Zirin also has a radio show, blog and has written several other books dealing with sports and politics.
We have a rich tradition in this country of athletes challenging systems of power and oppression; athletes such as Jesse Owens, Wilma Rudolph, Billy Jean King, Arthur Ashe, Jackie Robinson, Curt Flood, Roberto Clemente, Jack Johnson, Martina Navratilova, Jim Thorpe and a whole host of other sports figures.
However, if we limited our investigation of this history to those athletes that were involved in political struggle during the peak of the Black Freedom Movement, we can see the clear lineage between the student athletes at the University of Missouri and those that preceded them.
In 1967, then heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali refused induction into the US Army draft. Ali was stripped of his boxing crown on the grounds that he would not fight in the Vietnam war, since it was a violation of his religious beliefs. However, upon closer examination, Ali made it clear that his objection to the war was also based on racial politics. When Ali first spoke to the media after his refusal to be drafted, he was famously quoted as saying:
My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father.
Ali understood well how Black people were brutalized by the system of White Supremacy in the US and how it would be hypocritical of him to participate in a war that was targeting poor people color in Southeast Asia.
Stripped of his crown, Ali then spent the next several years fighting against White Supremacy and US Imperialism. With no income from boxing, Ali supported his family by speaking at campuses all across the country denouncing the US war in Vietnam and the US war against Black people at home. Ali’s global popularity provided the perfect opportunity to bring the messages of the Black Freedom and Anti-War movements to the masses of Americans who otherwise might have ignored them.
Then in 1968, at the Summer Olympics in Mexico City, Tommy Smith and John Carlos did something that further rocked the sports world. While taking the medals stand after the 200 meter race, Smith and Carlos raised their fists in protest during the playing of the national anthem. In addition, they wore beads that symbolized the history of lynching and no shoes to draw attention to the poverty that millions of people of color experienced in the US.
Carlos and Smith were stripped of their medals and were the recipients of death threats and harassment for years afterwards. However, it is important to note that Carlos and Smith did not act alone. The two great Olympic athletes were part of a larger group called the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR), which had formed in 1967, under the leadership of sociologist Harry Edwards.This group of Black athletes also included the likes of Jim Brown, Lew Alcindor and Bill Russell. Their goal was to bring the following list of grievances to the 1968 Olympics:
South Africa and Rhodesia should be uninvited from the Olympics (both countries were under white minority rule at the time).
- Restoration of Muhammad Ali’s world heavyweight boxing title
- Boycott of the New York Athletic Club
- Avery Brundage to step down as president of the International Olympic Committee
- Hiring of more African-American assistant coaches
- The complete de-segregation of the New York Athletic Club
With these two examples, one can see the rich history of athletes using their status to raise awareness and affect change. What the football players at the University of Missouri have done is not only contribute to challenge institutionalized racism and White Supremacy, but have also provided us with an opportunity to learn about how sports has played a vital role in the social movements that have been at the center of the struggle for social justice in this country.
Here is a video interview with Olympic great Dr. John Carlos and left sports writer Dave Zirin when they spoke in Grand Rapids a few years ago.