By Louis Moore
At this year’s ESPY Awards we witnessed a powerful force, famous black athletes coming together to attack police brutality and gun violence in America and to place themselves squarely in the growing social justice movement. These athletes, NBA stars Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade, and LeBron James used the beginning of the show to mark their participation in this political movement. In Paul’s powerful portion he recalled the names of great athletes of the past who used their platforms to fight inequality. In invoking the names of Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, John Carlos, Tommie Smith, Jim Brown, Billie Jean King, and Arthur Ashe, Paul added, “they set a model of what athletes should stand for, so we chose to follow in their footsteps.” While all of these athletes used their fame to foster conversations about civil rights and injustice, one must caution Paul to read the complete scouting report about athletes as activists. If these athletes are serious about being activists, they don’t want to be like Jesse Owens.
The famed sprinter who won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics did not champion athletes’ activism during the Civil Rights Movement. Instead, Owens believed the myth that the success of black athletes, especially in white sporting spaces, would break down racial barriers in society. But why wouldn’t he believe in the power of sports? He had been celebrated as a barrier breaker and a racial bridge maker since his success in the Olympics. As one black writer noted in 1947, “Sports are powerful factors for democracy and downright good in these United States.” For this writer, athletes like Louis, Robinson, and Owens, had “more gripping and moving effects on the thinking of the majority people than all of the long-studied and wise words of a W.E.B. DuBois, a Walter White or a A. Philip Randolph.” Owens believed these sentiments and thought that successful, and let’s be clear, well-behaved black athletes, played a bigger role in ending racial discrimination than politicians. Thus, when black athletes turned into activists, he lent his fame to the establishment that wanted these men hushed. These are the same people that historically tell black athletes like Anthony, Paul, Wade, and James to “shut up and play.” By briefly examining three events during the 1960s in which Owens voiced his displeasure in the activist athlete, we can clearly outline why these ballers don’t want to follow the footsteps of one of America’s greatest track stars.
1961, Houston Master’s Meet:
In 1961, in an overshadowed and forgotten track and field boycott, black athletes, including 1960 Olympians Ralph Boston (long jump), John Thomas (high jump,) and members of the Texas Southern track and field team, boycotted the AAU Master’s Meet at the University of Houston after school officials announced that they would not integrate the stadium. Understanding that this was a high profile sporting event sure to draw a large contingent of local black fans to see the Olympians and their famed Texas Southern track team—they were one of the top men’s team in the nation—the black athletes, led by the Texas Southern stars, refused to participate in a Jim Crow event. While most liberal minded people around the country congratulated the athletes, one prominent black figure chastised the young men, Jesse Owens. Owens called the movement “a pretty silly thing to withdraw young athletes who are college students because of a social structure.” He concluded with his standard approach to sports and justice arguing, “competition in athletics has broken down more barriers than almost any other thing.” Jackie Robinson, however, who had used his athletic fame to fight against Jim Crow, told the athletes to “do your part,” and noted that other college students were already risking their lives in the on going Freedom Rides movement. Black fans followed the lead of the athletes and boycotted the stadium. The meet was an economic bust.
Two years later, the two black athletic icons, Owens and Robinson, once again clashed on the black athlete’s role in the Civil Rights Movement. This time, Owens questioned why Robinson, and ex-heavyweight champion, Floyd Patterson, traveled to Birmingham, Alabama, to protest in the violent city. From his residence in Chicago, Owens sung what would be a standard tune from naysayers of the movement—we still hear this today during the Black Lives Matter Movement—and called the pair outside agitators. Owens critiqued, “I can’t see where they’re going to be of any great help.” He also claimed that locals would have to solve the Jim Crow problem on their own and added, “to have people from the outside go in, for some things I don’t think that’s a good idea.” When a reporter asked the Olympic star if he had been asked to help, he answered, “No. I haven’t been asked because I haven’t allowed myself to be asked.” Robinson clapped back. He reminded Owens that he had a duty to participate. “We must keep these youngsters aware—and especially we who have been fortunate like Floyd, Jesse and myself—that no Negro has it made, regardless of his fame, position or money—until the most underprivileged Negro enjoys his rights as a free man.”
1967-68, Olympic Project for Human Rights:
In Owens’s most famous critique of the activist athlete, he positioned himself as the leading black figure in the anti-Olympic boycott movement. In November 1967, leading black athletes, including Tommie Smith and John Carlos, argued they were prepared to boycott the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City if the “society and sports world” didn’t meet their six demands, including restoring Ali as champion, firing Avery Brundage as the head of the International Olympic Committee, and halting the participation of South Africa and Rhodesia if they insisted on having all-white Olympic teams. Immediately, upon hearing about the planned protest, Owens shot back, “I deplore the use of the Olympic Games by certain people for political aggrandizement. There is no place in the athletic world for politics.” Two months later, as the movement continued to pick up speed, the track star added his standard line about the potential of athletics to combat prejudice: “We have been able to bridge the gap of misunderstanding more than any where else,” and suggested sports had been “a great boon because as far as our understanding; we cannot legislate man’s heart.” Throughout 1968, Owens continued this line of attack in the press, on television, and during the Olympics after Smith and Carlos famously used the victory podium to raise their black fists in the air. To be sure, Owens took a lot of flack from black activists—many labeled him an Uncle Tom—and to clarify his politics, and his thoughts about the 1968 Olympic protest, he published Black Think, a bootstrapping autobiography that situates Owens as a well-meaning moderate and takes a number of swipes at so-called black militants. Four years later, however, Owens wrote another book, I’ve Changed, and admitted athletes had to be activists. But it was too late. He missed the moment and stood in the way of progress.
In the end, this is not a take down of Jesse Owens, but a warning to the new athletes revolting. The difficulty athlete activists faced in having to confront the likes of Owens speaks to why so many have been silent. The establishment will always find somebody (read Charles Barkley) comfortable to knock them down, and say shut up and play.
Louis Moore is an Associate Professor of History at Grand Valley State University, where he teaches courses on sports history, the Civil Rights Movement, and U.S. History. He has a manuscript under review about black prizefighters from 1880-1915, and is currently finishing a book on sports, the black athlete, and the civil rights movement.