Race Relations and US Sports: Three Steps Forward, Two Steps Back

From the Japan Times, October 15, 1964
From the Japan Times, October 15, 1964

On October 14, 1964, four days after the start of the Tokyo Summer Games, civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr won the Nobel Peace Prize.

rafer johnson flag bearer
Rafer Johnson carries the American flag in the Opening Ceremony at the Rome Olympics in 1960.

Fifty one years later, despite Barack Obama becoming the first black in the Oval Office, the state of race relations in the United States appears be getting worse. According to a recent New York Times CBS News poll conducted last week, race relations have regressed. “…nearly six in 10 Americans, including heavy majorities of both whites and blacks, think race relations are generally bad, and that nearly four in 10 think the situation is getting worse. By comparison, two-thirds of Americans surveyed shortly after President Obama took office said they believed that race relations were generally good.”

In my view, race relations between blacks and whites in the US have been a long slog of three steps forward two steps back. Sports in some ways has been a leading indicator for race relations, mainly because at some point, ability and outcome outweigh the color of one’s skin.

Here are a few significant moments from sports relevant to this topic, including past Olympiads – this is not a comprehensive list by any means:

  • Max Schmeling beat Joe Louis in 1935 in a highly publicized match between a white German and a black American, one year prior to the Berlin Games in 1936.
  • Jesse Owens won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, under the glare of Nazi leaders who espoused Aryan racial superiority.
  • In 1938, Joe Louis dropped Max Schmeling three times in the first round, remaining heavyweight champion of the world.
  • Jackie Robinson broke the race barrier in baseball by becoming the first black ball player in the major leagues on April 15, 1947.
  • In the 1960 Summer Games in Rome, decathlete Rafer Johnson was the first black athlete to be flag bearer for the US team. Despite protests, apartheid South Africa participated in those Games.
  • South Africa was suspended by the IOC from participating in the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 due to the South African government adopted a policy to prohibit athletes of different races to participate in sports together.
  • In 1968 at the Summer Games in Mexico City, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who  came in first and third in the 200 meter race, were kicked out of the Olympic Games for raising their fists covered in black gloves. Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated that year.

Here is a photo of that iconic moment in Mexico City:

Tommie Smith (center) and John Carlos (right) on the podium after the 200 meter race at the 1960 Summer Games in Mexico City.
Tommie Smith (center) and John Carlos (right) on the podium after the 200 meter race at the 1960 Summer Games in Mexico City.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.