The Groundbreaking Wilma Rudolph Part 2: Quietly Yet Powerfully, an Activist

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Wilma Rudolph and Richard Nixon in Nashville_1960

It’s an oft-told tale of Black Americans triumphing overseas – soldiers, athletes and musicians – only to come back home to a world of discrimination and second-class citizenship.

Wilma Rudolph broke the mold.

In the Rome Olympics in 1960, Rudolph won gold in the women’s 100 and 200-meter races, as well as the 4×100 relay, and arguably became the most popular athlete in the world due to her beauty and charm. (That’s saying a lot since Cassius Clay was also on the scene.)

Nearly a month after the end of the Rome Olympics, it was announced by officials of her hometown, Clarksville, Tennessee, that October 4 would be “Wilma Rudolph Day”, and that according to ESPN, Tennessee Governor Buford Ellington, was going to lead the celebration. Tennessee at the time was a segregated state, a place where authorities or owners could require the separation of races in the activities of daily life, like drinking from a water fountain, riding a bus, or eating at a restaurant. And Governor Ellington was a man elected on his support of continued racial segregation.

Rudolph understood the leverage she had at that moment, and said she would accept only if all activities related to Wilma Rudolph Day were racially integrated. It was an offer that no matter where you stood on the political and racial divide, you could not refuse. Rudolph was not to be denied, and so that day was the first time in Tennessee that blacks and whites would be allowed to mix socially.

I found this letter to the editor in the Milwaukee Journal from October 22, 1960, where one Virginia Williams of Wisconsin wrote in praise of Rudolph as the finest of role models for black Americans.

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JFK and Wilma in the Oval Office

Wilma Rudolph, the Negro girl from Clarksville, Tenn., who won three gold medals at the Olympics for her running, also won praise for her good looks and charming ways. This unassuming Negro girl, coming from a large family of average income, brought honor to her race and her country. She brought credit to her country as an ambassador of good will.

County Judge William Hudson spoke in Clarksville at an integrated banquet give for Wilma. With tears in his eyes he said: “If I can overcome my emotions, I’ll make you a speech. Wilma has competed with the world and brought home three medals. If you want to get good music out of a piano, you have to play both white and black keys.”

And in order for America to maintain her leadership in the world, she has to tap all of her resources, utilize all of them. Negroes need America and America needs them.

As one can imagine, race relations in America has improved, but it has been a bumpy road. A few years later, Sports Illustrated caught up with Rudolph on the eve of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and see how domestic life was treating her. While she was busy being a mom, she was also out on the occasional protest.

It was different in May of 1963, when Wilma took part in two demonstrations at Shoney’s, which is considered one of Clarkesville’s finest restaurants although it does not have much more to offer than hamburgers. She was turned away, together with the other Negroes. “I cannot believe it!: she said to a reporter. “Remember the reception they gave me in 1960?” A few months later Clarksville was integrated.  (Sports Illustrated, September 7, 1964)