Episode 11, Season 4
In the United States, Black athletes have had to contend with two sets of rules: those of the game and those of a racist society. While they dealt with 20th century realities of breaking the color line and the politics of respectability, Black fans, educational institutions, and the Black press were building sporting congregations with their own wealth and energy. Historians Derrick White and Louis Moore trace how these great men and women worked to create a more just future on the field and off.
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Bethany Jay: For over 20 years, my family and I have lived in a quiet suburb just 25 miles north of Boston. It's easy to fall in love with the natural beauty of this area, and it's tempting to become lulled into complacency by the seemingly liberal bent of its population. But you don't need to dig too deeply to find evidence of the region's often ugly racial past.
Bethany Jay: My town is only a suburb of Boston because after World War II, the government made extensive investments in highway infrastructure to connect the city's central arteries to outlying areas in every direction. But not everyone reaped the benefits of these investments. In a 1975 report titled "Route 128: Road to Segregation," the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination detailed the extent of racial exclusion in Boston suburbs. The report examined the policies and practices of federal, state and local government, as well as those of private employers, the housing industry and private citizens. They concluded that quote, "Federal and state fair housing laws have failed to open the suburbs to minority group citizens. As a result, Boston's Black and Puerto Rican populations remain in those sections of the city with the greatest proportion of deteriorating and dilapidated housing." The report went on to direct a majority of the blame for this inequity on quote, "Suburban public officials and the local residents of suburban towns who, for the most part have sought to maintain the status quo and to preserve the 'character' of their communities."
Bethany Jay: Racial discrimination is baked into the neighborhoods and landscapes of metro-Boston, but it generally goes unacknowledged until, that is, something pops up in the news and puts a spotlight on the region's legacy of racism. And often, that something has to do with sports. In overtime of game seven of the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs, Joel Ward, a Black left winger for the Washington Capitals scored the game-winning goal against the Boston Bruins. Afterwards, Bruins fans took to Twitter with a flurry of racist tweets using the N-word. Or in June, 2020, former Major League outfielder Torii Hunter gave several interviews detailing the racial abuse he endured when his teams played in Boston. Following Hunter's comments, the Red Sox put out a statement saying, "Torii Hunter's experience is real. If you doubted him because you've never heard it yourself, take it from us, it happens. Last year there were seven reported incidents at Fenway Park where fans used racial slurs. Those are just the ones we know about. And it's not only players. It happens to the dedicated Black employees who work for us on game days. Their uniforms may be different, but their voices and experiences are just as important. We are grateful to anyone who has spoken up, and remain committed to using our platform to amplify the many voices who are calling out injustice."
Bethany Jay: The experiences of Joel Ward and Torii Hunter tell us that race continues to be a major part of Black athletes' careers. And of course, this isn't just a Boston problem. No matter the location, racist name-calling and offensive stereotypes often go hand-in-hand with criticisms of players. When Serena Williams became visibly frustrated during the 2018 US Open, an Australian newspaper published a political cartoon depicting Williams in a tantrum. The distinctly unfeminine caricature of Williams resembled racist stereotypes of the Jim Crow era. And while Williams was playing against Naomi Osaka, whose parents are Haitian and Japanese, the cartoon portrayed her opponent as white and blonde. The contrast only underscored the racist stereotype of an angry and masculine Black woman.
Bethany Jay: While the spotlight can make Black athletes lightning rods for abuse, some have used it to become agents of change. Many Black athletes have paired sport with movements for social justice. But this often comes with mixed results. When NBA stars like Derrick Rose, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant wore "I Can't Breathe" shirts in both 2014 and 2020 to protest the killings of Eric Garner and George Floyd, there was little outcry and tepid support from the NBA. But things looked very different when members of the St. Louis Rams came onto the field in 2014 with a "Hands Up, Don't Shoot" gesture to protest the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. In response, the St. Louis Police Officers Association tried to link the players' peaceful protest with violence in the city. They issued a statement saying, "I'd remind the NFL and their players that it is not the violent thugs burning down buildings that buy their advertisers' products. It's cops and the good people of St. Louis and other NFL towns that do. Somebody needs to throw a flag on this play. If it's not the NFL and the Rams, then it'll be cops and their supporters." Later, about two dozen Rams fans gathered at a local bar to burn their Rams gear in protest.
Bethany Jay: And do we even need to talk about Colin Kaepernick? In 2016, Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem, saying, "I'm not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color." Colin Kaepernick was released by the San Francisco 49ers in 2017 and hasn't played for an NFL team since.
Bethany Jay: Black athletes play in every major sport, and are many of the nation's most beloved stars, even as they experience prejudice and discrimination. So when it comes to Black athletes and the larger American public? Well, it's complicated. And it will probably come as no surprise when I say that the complicated relationship between Black athletes, professional sports and sports fans and the Black freedom struggle isn't new. And we can look to the era of Jim Crow to understand its origins.
Bethany Jay: I'm Bethany Jay, and this is Teaching Hard History. We're a production of Learning for Justice, the education arm of the Southern Poverty Law Center. This season, we're offering a detailed look at how to teach the history of Jim Crow, starting with Reconstruction. In each episode we explore a different topic, walking you through historical concepts, raising questions for discussion, suggesting useful source material and offering practical classroom exercises.
Bethany Jay: Sports gives us a lens into how Black Americans carved spaces and opportunities for themselves and their communities. In the United States, Black athletes have had to contend with two sets of rules: those of the game and those of a racist society. While they dealt with the realities of breaking the color line and the politics of respectability, Black fans, educational institutions and the Black press were building sporting congregations with their own wealth and energy. Historians Derrick White and Louis Moore are hosts of the podcast The Black Athlete. In this episode, they discuss sports during the Jim Crow era with my co-host Hasan Kwame Jeffries, examining how these great men and women worked to create a more just future—both on the field and off.
Bethany Jay: I'm so glad you can join us. Let's get started.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: All right, everybody. I'm not going to lie, I've been looking forward to this episode the entire season. We're going to talk sports, and talk sports during the Jim Crow era. We're going to talk the color line, and we have the two best people that I can imagine to talk about it with us. Derrick, Lou, welcome to the podcast. So glad you could join us!
Derrick White: Excited to be here, man.
Louis Moore: Thank you for having us. It's great. I've been waiting for this moment.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Of course. Look, I want to dive right in. When we often talk about the Jim Crow era and race and sports, the conversation usually starts and ends with Jackie Robinson in the 1940s. But I don't want to start there. I want to begin at the turn of the 20th century, and I want to begin with Jack Johnson because in many ways, he really represents not only the accomplishments, the hopes and aspirations of African Americans at that moment, but also the challenges that Black folk are facing and will face, not only with regard to the color line in sports, but with regard to the color line in America for the next three quarters of the century. Lou, could you tell us a little bit about who Jack Johnson was?
Louis Moore: Yeah. You know, at its most basic, Jack Johnson's the first Black heavyweight champion of the world from 1908 to 1915. But to dig into his life is really a conversation about America at the turn of the century during the progressive era. So Jack Johnson was born the son of ex-slaves or formerly enslaved folks in 1878. Gets into boxing as a teenager. A number of Black men made that same decision because the market economy for them at that time was just like absolute zero, right? Your options was maybe get a factory job, be a sharecropper in the South, and that's it. So these guys who had the discipline to actually learn how to fight, they became professional fighters.
Louis Moore: In 1903, Jack Johnson becomes what we call the colored heavyweight champion. They started a colored heavyweight title back in 1882, and that's because John L. Sullivan, an Irish American, when he wins the heavyweight championship, says, "You know what? I'm not going to fight a Black person." Right? Because at that time, the championship really meant racial superiority.
Louis Moore: And so for almost 20 years, that's it for Black guys. And then Jack Johnson comes around, and in 1903 he's the colored heavyweight champion. And he has this idea that he says, "You know what? This is not good enough for me. I'm the best fighter in the world, and I want to fight for the championship." In 1905, this fighter Jim Jeffries, and we'll come back to him in a bit, but Jim Jeffries retires undefeated. He's a white guy, and he essentially says, "You know what? There are no more good white fighters to fight." And he's right. "There's no more good white fighters to fight, so I'm going to retire." And after that, some, you know, terrible heavyweights have the championships, and Jack Johnson literally follows them around trying to get a fight. And finally, he gets to Tommy Burns. And Tommy Burns, you know, he was racist, and, you know, when he made this fight in 1908 to fight Jack Johnson, it's going to be in Sydney, Australia, December 26. It's a huge fight.
Louis Moore: And he's telling people that, "I'm going to beat Jack Johnson because he's Black." And he says, "Look, the science tells me that Black people have hard skulls, so I'm not going to hit him in the head. I'm going to hit him in the stomach." He also says that Black people by their nature are scared, right? They have this yellow streak. And this is something we would have heard in the Civil War and the Spanish-American War: this idea that they don't fight, they flee. Jack Johnson hears all of this and uses this against Tommy Burns. In this fight in 1988, he's literally laughing at Tommy Burns, asking him to hit him in the stomach. And then eventually he knocks him out. But here's how Jack Johnson resonates with folks: to this day, we don't get to see that knockout because a police officer in Sydney, Australia, stops the filming of the fight. He realizes, you know, at a time of colonialism and imperialism, having a Black man knock out a white guy for the heavyweight championship of the world is that bad of a visual to see that nobody should see it.
Louis Moore: The very next day, a famous American writer, Jack London, he writes this open letter to Jim Jeffries in a San Francisco newspaper that Jim Jeffries has to come out of retirement, right? He has to knock the golden smile out of Jack Johnson's face. And he ends it with, like, "Jeff, it's up to you." At that moment, he creates this idea there's a white hope. And why do we need one? It's not simply that Jack Johnson's the heavyweight champion, right? It's not simply that white fighters like John L. Sullivan or Jim Jeffries and then the white media and white fans have attached this idea of racial superiority to the belt. It's Jack Johnson lived his life as a free Black man at a time where every four days a Black man's lynched.
Louis Moore: And what do I mean by a free Black man? He wore what he wanted, right? Fur coats, diamonds in his lapels, canes. He had gold in his teeth, right? He had the fastest cars. Frequently got speeding tickets. On top of that, Jack Johnson openly dated white women, and sometimes it's three at a time, right? He'd show up with them at various hotels.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: [laughs] Right. One wasn't enough for Jack Johnson.
Louis Moore: No, no, no. Like, three, four coming to the hotel. And, you know, he married a few, right? Not to say he married a few at the same time. That would have been illegal. But, you know, one after the other. And white America couldn't stand that, right? They couldn't stand him, the individual, because he acted like a free man. But they were just as concerned of other Black men acting that way. And so they did everything they could to find what they called a white hope, somebody to defeat Jack Johnson. For a year they begged Jim Jeffries, right? The media, people around him, to come out of retirement and fight Jack Johnson, and as I say, save the white race. And at first, Jeffries was saying, "No," right? "I'm out of shape." And he was. He's 300 pounds. He's an alfalfa farmer in Burbank, California. He shouldn't be fighting. But the pressure got to him by the end of 1909. He says, "You know what? I'll do this for the race." It's going to be the biggest fight ever. And still, to this day, I think in America it has the most consequences. They schedule the fight for July 4, 1910. They're supposed to fight in Emeryville, California, which is right outside of San Francisco. And the California governor's so worried that he actually bans boxing in the state. He's like, "I can't have this in my state." So of course, they move to Nevada. They had the fight in Reno, Nevada.
Louis Moore: July 4, 1910, Jack Johnson easily beats Jim Jeffries, right? He has no business being in the ring after five years of retirement. That day is the single largest day in American history when it comes to race riots and violence—we call them massacres now—until April 4, 1968, when Martin Luther King Jr. is assassinated in Memphis.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Hmm.
Louis Moore: I do have a story map that I've created, an online story map of all the riots that took place after the fight that students can go through and see where all these places are, where Black people were killed for cheering for Jack Johnson. There's nearly 20 Black people killed. There's one Black lady who has her tongue shot out for cheering for Jack Johnson. Newspapers across the country wrote editorials to Black people about knowing your place. Don't think you're Jack Johnson, right? The mayor in Memphis bans boxing. He says, we need Black people in the field, not as fighters. States across the country ban the film from being shown. There's countries across the world that did the same thing. That's how big that fight was.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Now I want to bring Derrick into the conversation. You know, when you think of Jack Johnson, as Lou was pointing out, I mean, we're talking about Black manhood, Black power, Black freedom, Black independence, Black determination. I mean, it seems that in the classroom for sure, there's a lot of points of entry to these broader subjects that we can engage in by teaching and talking about Jack Johnson.
Derrick White: Yeah, I think Jack Johnson's rise to the heavyweight championship comes at a very poignant moment in African-American history. The great historian Rayford Logan talks about this period between the end of Reconstruction and the 1920s as the nadir, as the lowest point in African-American history, as Black folks have very few allies, right?
Derrick White: Their enemies in the South are trying to keep them tied to plantations and farming through lynching and mass incarceration. Their former allies, the Republicans in the North have forgotten about them, more concerned with broader economic issues. And so Black folks are really forced to do for themselves in this particular moment, right? And so it's in this time frame that we see someone like Jack Johnson ascend to the heavyweight championship. And so his victory in the ring, and as Lou said, his notion of living as a free Black man was inspirational for all African Americans who sought, Hasan, what you called their freedom rights in this moment of racial discrimination and segregation that really kind of engulfed the entire nation.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, one of the things that I think people misunderstand is what Black people were doing—or rather not doing—while the white professional leagues were segregated. In other words, Black people aren't just sitting around looking through the fence like, "Hey, when are we gonna get our turn?" Like, they are forming their own leagues. And not just the Negro Leagues but, you know, tennis leagues, golf leagues. Derrick, could you say a little bit about African Americans coming together and institution building around professional sports?
Derrick White: Yeah, I think in the broader historical context, the way that I teach this and approach this subject, is to think about that—as I mentioned earlier—Black folks in this nadir, they just don't long for civil rights, they organize for civil rights. They organize against lynching. And they do this through a variety of organizations: the NAACP, the Niagara Movement, the Urban League, the UNIA, the National Council of Negro Women. These organizations function to challenge segregation, but also give Black folks opportunities to move their lives forward in the context of segregation.
Derrick White: And so the sports world is no different. I talk about this more broadly as a sporting congregation: folks who are fans, sportswriters, athletes come together to help build networks that create and sustain sports organizations. Whether it's the ATA, the American Tennis Association, or it's the Negro Leagues, right? These leagues and teams and organizations give young and old an opportunity to develop their love of the game, to write about it and to develop kind of a sports world and a sports experience that is outside of the purview and even sometimes the desire of integrated sports. And so for Black life in the midst of segregation, they're not just looking through the dot hole, hoping and pining for an opportunity. They are building, organizing and using their own wealth, their money, time and energy to build a variety of sporting institutions.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And it's a range of people who are involved in this, right? I mean, so the American Tennis Association. You have Black elite, right? I mean, Black middle class sort of organizing that. And that's different than connecting with gangsters in the Negro Leagues. I mean, it's two different classes of folk, right? But they're all involved.
Derrick White: Well, yes and no. So I think about this in two ways, right? Like, if we look at an organization like the ATA, founded in 1916, it is founded by the Black elite. It includes Talley Holmes, who is a graduate of Dartmouth College. It includes Lucy Diggs Slowe, who is a graduate of Howard University and a founder of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. It includes this kind of level of elite folks who have taken to tennis, right? Which, you know, regardless of race is an upper-middle class sport. You have that on one hand, but on the other hand, you have the Negro Leagues, that includes not only college graduates, but folks who never went to college in the first place. Teams are owned by gangsters, people who ran numbers in their communities. At the same time, those men who ran numbers also imagined themselves as part of the upper class, right?
Derrick White: And so they would play golf. They would go to the country club. They would play tennis, right? And so I think there's a lot more interaction and interfacing between what we think of as these two classes, in part because segregation really forced upper, middle and lower classes together in ways that are often hard for us to see in modern America.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And then, of course, the colleges begin to organize.
Derrick White: Yeah. What they begin to do by 1920 is really organize themselves into athletic conferences. And so we get the CIAA, right? We get the SIAC, we get the Midwestern Athletic Conference, we get the SWAC, right? These conferences are being developed between 1916 and 1922, and that allow for Black colleges to now play regular schedules, to have rivalries, to develop homecoming games, to develop the Classic, which is instrumental to our understanding of collegiate sports in the South among Black folks. There is nothing bigger than Black college homecoming, right?
Derrick White: I'm not going to get on this podcast and say which one of those homecomings is the best because that is a fight. You know, my friend Jelani Favors, who I believe was on the previous episode, will tell you that it's North Carolina A&T.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Aggie Pride.
Derrick White: Right, Aggie Pride. My brother, who was a Florida A&M grad, will tell you that you should come down to Tallahassee. And then every other person claims that their college homecoming is the best. And I think it's such an important part of the legacy, right? Today, we can still see the legacy of these sporting congregations in Black college life when we look at the Bayou Classic, when we look at the Orange Blossom Classic or the Florida Classic or the Magic City Classic. Between those and Homecoming, we really get a taste of this longer sports legacy that emerges at the height of segregation.
Bethany Jay: This is Teaching Hard History, and I'm Bethany Jay. We prepare detailed show notes for each episode of this podcast, so that you can use what you learn here in the classroom. You'll find relevant resources, as well as a full transcript, complete with links to materials mentioned by our guests. You can find them at LearningForJustice.org/podcasts. Let's return now to Hasan's conversation with Derrick White and Louis Moore.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Lou, correct me if I'm wrong, but I think your favorite movie of all time is The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars, and that if it was redone, that you would try to cast yourself as Bingo Long, played by Billy Dee Williams.
Louis Moore: Yes.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I mean, I think it's appropriate for Lou Moore. But could you explain to our audience not just what the Negro Leagues were, but why students should know about the Negro Leagues, and what that can tell them, not only about the Black experience at the time, but about America at the time.
Louis Moore: Yeah. No, that's a fabulous question. It's something I wrestle with too, right? How do you put this in context? And one of the things I say to my students is Black people have been playing baseball since baseball has been played, right? And we can see this going back to the 1850s, Black folks forming their own teams. So even before the Negro Leagues, you have start-ups. Like, leagues try to start a Southern league in 1886. Can you imagine, what, a little over 20 years after the end of slavery, you have teams in these major cities trying to start something, trying to figure out how do we get from city to city and build this Black business because these white folks aren't letting us play.
Louis Moore: And we see the struggle with that, whether it is lodging, which we'll see the same struggle in the '20s and '30s and '40s, when there's the Negro Leagues. Whether it's getting your ballparks. And then ultimately, this league fails and another one that starts up the year later fails. And then you get what we commonly call the Negro Leagues. This Negro League exists because of the Great Migration. Rube Foster, when he's thinking about getting this league together, it's late 1919, and he's doing this at a time when Black folks are moving from the fields to the factory. And he points this out. He doesn't use the word "Great Migration," because that's something we use, but he's using the Black press. And he's writing this letter about what's so hard about Black baseball, but why his league is going to work. And one of the things he points out, he says, "Look, Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, all these major cities, there's a lot of Black folks there, right? And they have time and they have money, a little bit of money, right? Because they're working at these factories." He's saying, "This thing's going to work." So teaching about the Negro Leagues gives us an opportunity, a window into the Great Migration.
Louis Moore: The other thing it does is it allows us to have a conversation about internally what Black folks are doing when faced with Jim Crow. And part of that, it's the whole Marcus Garvey idea. It's this Booker T. Washington idea: we're going to build our own. And one of the primary sources I use to show the students when we talk about the Negro Leagues is there's this Black newspaper in Kansas City, and it's opening weekend for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro National League. And they're talking about finally, we have this great institution to show white people, because white people don't think we could do these things. They don't think we could organize. But we have a league, we have a team now, and they see it as a way to prove to white Americans that they can make it.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I remember growing up, and my grandmother used to talk about how her and my grandfather would go to Negro League games. And she talked more about it than he did. And one of the things that talking about sports during this era actually allows us to do is to talk about the experiences of women—and not just as spectators. Because the reason why Grandma Lee, my grandmother, loved talking about going to the Negro League games is because she was an athlete. She was a gymnast in high school. Never went to college, but you also see women playing college sports. But then they also had their own professional leagues during this time. Derrick, could you say a little bit about women athletes in professional leagues, in the Black college leagues, but then also, by the time we get to 1932 and 1936, into the Olympics as well?
Derrick White: I think one of the things that's really interesting to think about how the sports world and American culture writ large defines sporting possibilities for women, right? At some point, sports are seen as something for women more broadly as a way of developing a kind of healthy lifestyle. And so we see, for instance, women's colleges in New England have, you know, baseball teams—not softball, but baseball teams. We see women playing basketball. We see them playing a number of other sports: tennis, golf as well on their college campuses. But as sports become competitive for women, sports becomes seen as something that is unladylike. We see white women, especially middle class white women, rapidly removing themselves from the sports world, especially in sports like basketball, and keeping their interest in, I think, kind of timid elite sports: golf, sometimes tennis. What we also see is the broader American public really kind of pull back their support.
Derrick White: But Black communities supported competitive athletic sports for women. You see Black colleges developing Black basketball teams in the South at the very same time as we see Black football classics, we see Black basketball teams—men and women—being founded. The Philadelphia YWCA creates a Black basketball team starring a woman by the name of Ora Washington, who is in the Pro Basketball Hall of Fame. Ora Washington will shift from an amateur team to a professional team. She plays for the Philadelphia Tribunes, who then tore all over the country playing other women's teams and sometimes men's teams, and being equally successful. And so there becomes this avenue in these Black sporting congregations for women, opportunities for them to compete at very high levels. And this really sets the stage for them for opportunities at the international level when it comes to the Olympic Games. And so we see women, African-American women in particular, getting an opportunity to go to the Olympic trials. Several make the team but are not allowed to run in 1932 and 1936, right? It takes time for them to be seen as part of the American athletic infrastructure. But this sporting congregation in Black communities sets the stage so that by the 1940s and 1950s in women's track and field in the sprinting events, many of the participants are coming out of HBCUs.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Lou, by the time we get to the 1920s and the 1930s, the color line is pretty deeply entrenched. What are the expectations of Black athletes when it comes to them challenging the color line?
Louis Moore: No, that's a great question. This idea of pushing forward into integration is going to come up with Joe Louis, right? His handlers said, "You know what? You have the ability to fight for the heavyweight championship, but you have to be the quote unquote 'Good Negro.' We're going to show pictures of you reading the Bible. We're going to talk about how you live clean. We're going to get you married." They actually force him to get married to a Black woman. You know, none of this Jack Johnson stuff. None of this single man going from place to place. And, you know, can't be in public with white women. This is what you're going to need to do to push forward into an integrated space. You know, long story short, 1937 Joe Louis wins the heavyweight championship of the world. 1938 though, this is when Joe Louis for a lot of people becomes actually an American, right? For a lot of folks, he is the first Black American to just be American, right? And actually, there's a book that comes out in what, 1944, it's literally called Joe Louis: American.
Louis Moore: And that's because he has this fight against Max Schmeling, a German fighter. We see this fight in 1938 between Max Schmeling and Joe Louis as America versus Germany. Louis had lost to him a couple of years prior, but this time—spoiler alert—he defeats him at Yankee Stadium. And Joe Louis becomes this American hero. And then, you know, after Pearl Harbor, Louis gives up his career. I mean, imagine that you're the top fighter in the world, you're making, you know, tons of money. You donate over a million dollars in fight purses to the US military. And then after that you join the military. And people see him as a hero.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: He's the Black Captain America, right? I mean, is that safe to say? I mean, he's being portrayed as that.
Louis Moore: [laughs] I don't want to get sued by Marvel, but, you know, he is, right? But yeah, like, he's that guy, right? He's in the military. And a great dichotomy in this is that he's still in a Jim Crow military.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Right. Right.
Louis Moore: The other sad part is that he gives about a million dollars to the US military, right? What happens, though, is he owes tax money. The problem is that he's not making any money during World War II, but he still owes tax money from when he was a heavyweight champ in 1941. And the US government never forgives him. And so he's a heavyweight until, what, 1949? From about '46 to '49, he's broke. Every fight he has, taxman comes and takes out their cut and then he's got to start over again. It's a tragic story, right? As you said, somebody who was thought of as the Black Captain America at the time.
Louis Moore: But Joe Louis is so important to this conversation because he actually sets the tone for what can come next: professional football, baseball, other sports. You'll start to see a little bit more Black athletes post-World War II, like teams that have, like, one and then there were like three or four. They're allowing their Black players to play. Before that, they would sit them out. So there's starting to be a change going on in sports.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I'm always fascinated to put Jesse Owens into conversation with this idea of Black athletes. What should we do with Jesse Owens, the Buckeye Bullet? And not only how he's treated, but how he chooses to walk through the world politically afterward? Derrick?
Derrick White: I think Jesse Owens, that his talent converges with the need and desire of, in this case, Ohio State's wanting to win track and field, being competitive. They offer him a scholarship, even though he had gone to an industrial high school that didn't necessarily prepare him for collegiate work, even by the standards of the day. Derrick Bell, the great legal scholar, talks about racial convergence when he talks about civil rights agendas. And I think that sports is a really clear space where we can see racial convergence, right? That opportunities that Joe Louis receives or Jesse Owens receives, that these converge with broader national goals. And because they fit a broader agenda, they are able to give a particular kind of space that someone like Jack Johnson or even the Negro Leagues could never kind of receive at an earlier period.
Derrick White: I also know that, even though Jesse Owens is extremely marginalized—he's not allowed to live on campus, he is never really a clear fit—he finds community inside Ohio State. I think it's always important to note that he is a member of a Black fraternity, in this case Alpha Phi Alpha. I think that that's an important dynamic. I think one of the things that's really interesting is that there's a moment in the 1936 Olympic trials where him and Ralph Metcalfe and one other person, they're all competing for this spot on the Olympic team, and they're all members of the same fraternity, right? Even at predominantly white institutions, Black athletes are forming relationships and connections with other Black students who are also trying to survive the institution at the same time.
Derrick White: When we get to Jesse Owens after the Olympics, you know, track and field is still an amateur sport, and there's no clear way for anyone in track and field to make professional money. And so Jesse Owens, how does he translate his success in the 1936 Olympics into a career? And I don't think there's a path forward. And he very much struggles with this, most famously racing horses for money almost as a sideshow. He feels like sports gave him an opportunity to see the world, an opportunity to form relationships. And so he still saw that as a positive relationship, whereas others saw his life as being dehumanized, that sports had—like, he'd allowed white sporting institutions to use him, and he never received the kind of support that he needed.
Louis Moore: The other thing about Jesse, this idea that the sports gave him everything? He used it in the 1960s to push back up against Black athletes who were using their platform to fight American racism. And he was very clear about this. And at one point in 1963, Jackie Robinson and Floyd Patterson who was the ex-heavyweight champion, he just lost to Sonny Liston, they go to Birmingham. And Jesse Owens makes a comment like, "Why are you there? You're making trouble for everybody." And Jackie, like, claps back, for lack of a better term, to him publicly about, "Look, you know, we might have it made, but others don't. And that's why I'm fighting." Jesse Owens writes a book called Blackthink. He's against groupthink. He talks about how great sports have been for Black Americans, but then he uses a lot of time to go after this potential boycott of Olympians, and spends a lot of time talking about Tommie Smith. This is before the Olympics. But then ultimately, you know, a couple of years later, he realizes he's wrong. And I think part of it is in '68, when some of these guys are getting kicked out like John Carlos and Tommie Smith, and Jesse Owens is like, "Look, I'll get you a job," and somebody shoots back to him and is like, "Look, when you came back, you had to raise horses. We still have no opportunities." And I think that that resonated with him ultimately, right? When he a couple of years later admits that he was wrong.
Derrick White: Yeah. No, I think, it's important to understand that Black folks don't all think the same, that there's a lot of tension, a lot of conversation, a lot of dissension, conflict, as much as consensus on many of these kinds of issues and the role of sports therein.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, one of the questions I like to ask my students when we sort of walk our way through the 1930s, and then again I ask them separately in the late 1960s, is should Black athletes have participated in the 1936 Olympics? Not only would it be problematic to participate in an Olympics that is being held in a racist nation, but should they be participating for a racist nation in an Olympics in a racist nation? And it always leads to a fascinating discussion because some people, some of the students will fall back on, you know, this is what they've been training for all their life, right? And then others will be like, "Wait a minute. You know, what does it mean, right? What does it mean if I win? And what does it mean if I don't go?" And so to hear them sort of wrestle with the possibilities and then the consequences and then the impact of participating or not participating is always a really fruitful and thought-provoking dialogue and conversation.
Louis Moore: Yeah. Can I jump in here? Is this where I jump in? You know, yeah, I like that question too, but, you know, these athletes, it's like the students say, this is what they train for. But Jesse's very clear even in '36, and I think every Black athlete is. Like, I have to prove a point, right? You know, on the one hand, look, America itself is racist and they bring that up, right? But they also say "This is our opportunity," right? And I think a number in the Black press say the same thing. You know, there's a battle in the Black press: should they go or should they stay, and ultimately that idea that you go and you prove a point for us, right? Not only against Hitler's racism, but, you know, to represent your country and hopefully we'll get something out of it, right? And this is how bad it is for Black Americans, right? That their hope is that Jesse Owens wins and they get treated better.
Louis Moore: When we talk about this idea, should we go or should we stay, 1968 Olympics, John Carlos and Tommie Smith, who had the same "Should I go, should I stay?" They knew that's their platform, that's when people listen to you, when all the cameras are on you. Because those cameras are going to be at the Olympics, they're not staying home in Cleveland to talk to you about race, they're going to follow the athletes who are performing.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, we've been talking this time about Jim Crow sports, and we've mentioned on occasion Jackie Robinson. Jackie Robinson is usually the starting point and the end point for discussions and conversations of Black sports and Black athletes during the Jim Crow era. And we just talk about that one moment in April of 1947 with him breaking the color line. So Lou, what should we be doing with Jackie Robinson?
Louis Moore: Oh, is this time for the shameless plug? We Will Win the Day, my book. No, don't edit that out, by the way. [laughs] You know, Jackie's a fascinating story. When you said, "What should we do with him?" I use him to talk about this idea of activist/athlete, right? He is somebody we can see stand up in front of Congress. He tells Congress about police brutality, right? And the need to end police brutality, and writes several times throughout his life about the problem of police brutality. He talks about—you know, at the end of his life about why he doesn't stand for the national anthem. I know it's a controversial subject, but he doesn't stand for the national anthem. I mean, Jackie Robinson, this person whose number is retired in America's game did not stand for the national anthem because of the way America not only treated him but treated other Black people.
Louis Moore: And Jackie has one of my favorite sayings. He says, "Look, I'm famous, but if the lowest Black person is not free, then I'm not free." And that's how he approached his life. That's how he approached civil rights. And that's how we could use Jackie. You could use it as a story about civil rights, and you could use it as a story about the activist/athlete. If you wanted to get into conversations about athletes today, you could use Jackie Robinson as that jump off point.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And we would be remiss if we didn't mention as well his wife, Rachel Robinson, who was and is still alive, a force in her own right, not only in supporting—serving as a support system for him, but leading the Jackie Robinson Foundation, working in a World War II airplane factory as a riveter. I mean, just a fascinating life. I mean, so wherever you see these points of entry for talking about the experiences of Black women through sports or their connection to various athletes, I think we should always take it.
Derrick White: I always find that the story about Jackie Robinson's brother, Mack Robinson, to be really poignant and important in understanding not only the possibilities of sports but the limitations of sports. He saw his brother finish second to Jesse Owens, only to come back to LA to serve as a street sweeper. And that athletic success at the Olympics still left him as marginalized economically in Los Angeles.
Louis Moore: He would occasionally do his job in his Olympic uniform.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Yeah.
Louis Moore: And just to remind white folks of how they treated him. You know, he didn't get those opportunities, right? So it's a powerful—here he is, you know, being a street sweeper with "USA" on his jacket and Jackie always remembered that.
Derrick White: That's one of the tremendous struggles that we see for all these athletes, especially during this time of segregation, is how do they transition out of the sports world, right? You know, for these sports, especially for these amateur sports, it becomes very difficult for these athletes. Lou always talks about how John Carlos and Tommie Smith get tryouts for professional football because, you know, they're not only marginalized in the athletic world, but even in 1968, there's still no professional track and field opportunities at the same rate that they can feed their families in. And so there's always this tension that someone like Jesse Owens faced or Mack Robinson faced that's slightly different than Jackie Robinson or Joe Louis, who have professional opportunities to be able to make money. I think that's an important distinction that amateur/professional split, and what that means for opportunity, and what that also means for their positionality on activism.
Bethany Jay: Learning for Justice has a special opportunity, just for educators. After listening to this episode, you can earn a certificate for one hour of professional development. All you have to do is go to LearningForJustice.org/PodcastPD—PD for professional development. That's "PodcastPD," all one word. Then enter the unique code word for this episode: "congregation"—all lowercase. You'll also find a link in the show notes. It's a great way to get even more out of Teaching Hard History.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I think one of the things that is important to include in the conversation of this era is exactly that, Derrick, the financing. I mean, now our minds immediately go to the mega athlete making literally, you know, a quarter of a billion dollars, signing quarter of a billion dollar contracts. Ora Washington, who you mentioned, the superstar Black woman tennis player and basketball player, I mean, she's working as a domestic, you know, while she's playing in—you know, literally up until close to her death. And even Jackie Robinson, right? I mean, who is this, you know, amateur, well-known, better football player, better track star, long jumper, you know, has to leave UCLA in his senior year, going to play—you know, signing semi-pro professional football contracts because he can't afford it. Doesn't play baseball for five years, comes back, you know, has these other possibilities. And it's basically like, "Yo, can I get a tryout with the Monarchs because the Negro Leagues will pay?" Right?
Derrick White: Exactly.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I mean, the idea of the money incentive, right? I mean, how do I make a living out of this talent that I have, is just fundamentally different then. Perhaps, perhaps. Well, let me not say fundamentally different. It is a challenge then and it's a challenge now when we think about college athletes, you know, and the struggle some of them have at some of the top-tier programs.
Derrick White: Yeah. I mean, I think that's also complicated by, you know, the sports that we think of as professional now were not professional during the era of segregation. So we take someone like Althea Gibson. Althea Gibson was a tennis player, born in South Carolina, raised in Harlem. You know, was identified at a junior tournament at the ATA, and she was taken in by a pair of doctors. They were sports fans, tennis fans, and saw her supreme talent, and talked to her parents and saying, "Look, we want to give this young lady an opportunity to maximize her tennis talent." She was, like, 18 years old or something when she goes back to high school as a sophomore, and she graduates in Virginia at almost 20 years old in high school. But she goes to Florida A&M, as part of this sporting congregation. But Althea Gibson is the first person to play in the US Open. She's the first Black woman to play at Wimbledon. She's the first Black woman to win the US Open and Wimbledon.
Derrick White: And one of the things I think that's interesting is that she—you know, they wanted her to be Jackie Robinson. We talk about this quite a bit in the scholarship. They wanted her to talk about the civil rights movement, to use her position, her platform as a racial pioneer to do that. And she was not comfortable doing that. You know, whereas Jesse Owens used his position to try to push people back, she just refused to engage in this kind of activism. But I think it's also telling on the back end of her career, once she retired, she's like, "What am I to do? Am I going to go teach high school after I have traveled the globe playing tennis?" Yeah, but not really earning any real money at it. You know, like, these are the kinds of challenges that amateur-professional sports split, at least in my mind, I think require teachers to pay attention to. So it's not as simple as, you know, Jesse Owens was making this money, and he chose to do this. That the professional opportunities in particular sports was much more difficult and actually nonexistent.
Louis Moore: Yeah. And, you know, with Althea, I mean, one way she had to make money was play with the Globetrotters, right? I mean, think about this, you're the best tennis player in the world and you've got to play with the Harlem Globetrotters, right? You got to play basketball with the Harlem Globetrotters. You got to try to put out an album. But she does become the first Black woman to be a professional golfer, right? This is the type of athlete that we're dealing with. And so she does become a professional golfer. There's no professional tennis. And, you know, later on in life, she's discovered broke and destitute, and people have to raise money for her. You know, they forgot about her. It's one of these sad stories about American sports, how, you know, she was a hero. And then people just forgot about her when she's not in the limelight, and she really struggled.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: In what ways do you use Black newspapers in the classroom—that teachers can use—to sort of get at some of the issues that we have been talking about so far?
Derrick White: Well, I use them in two ways, at least. I think that we can use the Black newspaper coverage and compare it to white newspaper coverage of someone like Jack Johnson, right? We can see the ways in which many Black, but not all Black newspapers, laud Jack Johnson's victory, especially over Tommy Burns, as one that is broader for the race, and that white newspapers see this loss in fraught racialized terms. You can also look at Black newspapers as where we get an inroad in understanding how sports operates in Black communities. We get tennis scores, we get Negro League scores, we get Bowl classics, we get sportswriters who are writing about the various sports and commenting on the way racism functions and is rife in the sporting world. We learn about the Black players at predominantly-white institutions like Bill Bell at Ohio State or Jesse Owens. Long before they become international or household names, Black newspapers are capturing their kind of every move and giving us insights to their experiences.
Louis Moore: And I would say Black newspapers give us an insight to what folks called the "politics of respectability." Now everyone didn't root for Jack Johnson because once they they saw him as a problem, they were worried about, you know, now they're all going to think of us this way. Or if you look way back when boxing wasn't popular, wasn't legal, in the 1880s, Black newspapers would tell local Blacks to stay away from this. This makes us look bad.
Louis Moore: The other thing, as Derrick brings up, these Black athletes in white spaces. Black newspapers love, you know, rooting for a Joe Louis, a Jesse Owens, a Black college player at a white school, because for them, this is the barometer. How are they treating this person? Because if you could cheer for Jackie, you could cheer for Joe, you could cheer for Jesse, you could celebrate me too. If his white teammates can be with him, then you could hire me in this spot. And so many Black newspapers, especially around the World War II era, are looking at sports as that way into society.
Louis Moore: If you're looking for free online sources, Chronicling America. Chronicling America has newspapers up to, what, 1922 for free, several of them. I believe The Washington Bee is in there. There's a local Black newspaper from Iowa in there. The Broad Ax from Chicago is in there. There's a Black newspaper, I want to say from Tulsa still in there. If anybody needs, like, sources, just you can reach out to me. I have tons of editorials or political cartoons that I use.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And I've always enjoyed when you post various newspaper articles. You share them on Twitter @LouMoore12, so be sure to follow because you can get as many resources there as you can from any library, for sure.
Derrick White: I'm thinking about sources. Here at the University of Kentucky, we have a fantastic, one of the best oral history collections. And we have a huge collection on the desegregation of Major League Baseball that includes a series of oral histories with players, personnel, who are essential in desegregating. I had my students this semester listen to an interview with Larry Doby, who was the second Black player to desegregate baseball. Played for the Cleveland Indians. And it was a very fascinating story about his life, playing for the Newark Eagles in the Negro Leagues and how that provided an opportunity.
Derrick White: And I think to hear these men both as administrators in Major League Baseball, as sportswriters, as well as players talk about their experiences in their own words, in their own voice is a very powerful opportunity for students to really learn about the context of the desegregation of Major League Baseball.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: So both of you have talked about Jackie Robinson being very vocal, talking about the importance of fighting for civil rights, Joe Louis, Jack Johnson, in his own way, right? Being that example, that exemplar of Black freedom, Black defiance. And every single one of them at various points was told to shut up and dribble. I'm wondering about the connections that can be made between the experiences of Black athletes in the past, and what Black athletes have been experiencing in the present, and specifically in the post-George Floyd era.
Derrick White: Yeah. I mean, I think—you know, I actually think I would extend it back to Trayvon Martin in 2012, whose tragic murder, I think, set off what we have now as scholars defined as the Black Lives Matter era and moment. And the reason I think that Trayvon Martin's tragic death intersects with sports in real ways is that it happened on the night of the NBA All-Star Game in 2012, and that NBA players, most notably the Miami Heat and other teams, really kind of were some of the first kinds of examples in this modern moment, right? Where we saw these athletes who are now signing contracts worth, you know, hundreds of millions of dollars use the stage of sports to talk about police brutality, to talk about violence. And we've seen this occur in ebbs and flows over the last decade, kind of culminating into the summer of 2020, when we saw around the tragic death of George Floyd, that the NBA and the WNBA had taken the lead in really talking about the intractable ways in which racism still infects American life.
Derrick White: And what makes this moment so I think poignant is that it comes on the heels of almost two decades or more of Black athletes—especially the largest and most successful Black athletes—being surprisingly quiet on these issues. And so in the '90s, you know, we were told to be like Mike, but that meant drinking Gatorade and wearing Hanes and Nikes and not talking about the LA riots, right? Magic had a million dollar smile. He didn't use his charisma to discuss Rodney King or Latasha Harlins in 1992. So this moment, beginning in 2012, represents, I think, a fundamental shift in the ways in which Black athletes in particular, but all athletes, have used their platform to discuss racism. And it hearkens back to a much older era, one of which Jackie Robinson, Paul Robeson, Muhammad Ali, John Carlos, Tommie Smith and others were active in using sports as a vehicle to talk about racism and race relations.
Louis Moore: Yeah. Yes, that's perfectly said. And I'll just say that there's a direct line to someone like a Joe Louis and LeBron James. You know, Joe Louis as heavyweight, his last year as he gets out of the military, heavyweight champion of the world, between 1946 and 1948, where he's still champion, he's talking a lot about fighting against Jim Crow, and he realizes the best way to do that is with the vote. Now if you're Black in the South, you know, you don't have the vote as you outlined really great in your book, but he still understands that this is the way, this is how you change Jim Crow. This is how you change debt peonage. This is how you fight all these things: through the vote.
Louis Moore: And we'll see in the 2020, you know this post-George Floyd era, what does LeBron do? He starts More Than A Vote. He gets athletes together to help register people, to open up sporting arenas to vote. And if you look at women from the WNBA and the More Than A Vote in combination helping to get, you know, Warnock elected in the Senate. And really, it does change the course of American history, right? It is the reason why recently you're allowed to get an infrastructure bill, right? It is someone like Joe seeing the importance of the vote, LeBron James really carrying that mantle, whether he knows it or not.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Last question. Lightning round. Lou Moore: greatest Black athlete of all time?
Louis Moore: Oh, man. You know, for that answer read We Will Win the Day. No, gosh. Gosh. Besides Dominique Wilkins and Eric Davis?
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Oh, Jesus.
Louis Moore: Probably Joe Louis. You know, so it goes Dominique and Eric are on the same plane and then Joe Louis.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Gotcha. Derrick? Same question. Greatest Black athlete all the time?
Derrick White: Ooh, greatest Black athlete of all time? It depends on how—I'm gonna go with Kareem.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Hmm. Hmm!
Derrick White: I just think…
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Why Kareem? Why Kareem?
Louis Moore: Don't do that. He's from New York. Don't do that because Hasan's from New York. Like, this is—don't give me that.
Derrick White: Well, I just think that, like, in this era of LeBron and Michael Jordan Last Dance, Scottie Pippen throwing himself into the greatest conversation, the greatest of all time conversation, I think that one of the things that I quietly remind students that there's never been a player more dominant than Kareem from, like, middle school through year 15 in the NBA.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Hmm, hmm, hmm.
Derrick White: That's just on the court. And when we think about off the court, the kind of activism and intelligence even now calling out, you know, athletes and policy in America, that Kareem deserves, I think, a higher place of honor in our legacy, in this greatest of all time kind of conversation. And while he's still with us, I think we should not only continue to give him his flowers, but to honor him. And I think he deserves—if anybody deserved a 10-part documentary, it was that guy.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Hmm.
Derrick White: As I said to my students, I would say, I was like, "Michael Jordan was not in no movie with Bruce Lee."
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: [laughs]
Louis Moore: You know, the other thing about Kareem real quick, and he loves history, though, too, he loves Black history, right?
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Yeah.
Louis Moore: And so he—I mean, he writes about the 1920s and the Harlem Renaissance. I believe he has a book on the Harlem Renaissance. He put out a documentary on Black soldiers in the American Revolution, right? Like, this is something we don't even talk about in mainstream.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Right, right.
Louis Moore: And Kareem's like, "You know, let's make this documentary." I wish it would play more. I've never even got a chance to see it because, you know, I'm ballin' on a budget, you know? I believe it was like the History Channel. My cable doesn't carry that. I don't have Ohio State money. But yeah. No, Kareem's a good one. And people, you know, in the era of championships, people forget he won just as much as Mike, and he's got three college championships, right?
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Right.
Louis Moore: And he was like the best high school player in the nation.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Yeah. Good point. Derrick, Lou? I can't thank you guys enough. This has been fantastic. This has been enlightening. And this is exactly why I couldn't wait for this episode. Thank you, brothers.
Louis Moore: Thank you.
Derrick White: Thank you.
Bethany Jay: Louis Moore is a professor of history at Grand Valley State University. He is the author of two books: We Will Win the Day: The Civil Rights Movement, the Black Athlete, and the Quest for Equality and I Fight for a Living: Boxing and the Battle for Black Manhood, 1880-1915.
Bethany Jay: Derrick E. White is an associate professor of history and African American and Africana studies at the University of Kentucky. He is the author of Blood, Sweat, and Tears: Jake Gaither, Florida A&M, and the History of Black College Football, as well as The Challenge of Blackness: The Institute of the Black World and Political Activism in the 1970s.
Bethany Jay: Be sure to listen to their podcast, The Black Athlete where you can learn even more about the history of sports and race.
Bethany Jay: Teaching Hard History is a podcast from Learning for Justice—the education arm of the Southern Poverty Law Center—helping teachers and schools prepare students to be active participants in a diverse democracy. Learning for Justice provides free teaching materials about slavery, Reconstruction, the civil rights movement and more. You can find award-winning films and classroom-ready texts at LearningForJustice.org.
Bethany Jay: Most students leave high school without an understanding of the Jim Crow Era and its continuing relevance. This podcast is part of an effort to change that. In our fourth season, we put Jim Crow under the spotlight—examining its history and lasting impact.
Bethany Jay: Thanks to Drs. White and Moore for sharing their insights with us. This podcast was produced by Mary Quintas and senior producer Shea Shackelford. Russell Gragg is our associate producer. "Music Reconstructed" is produced by Barrett Golding. And Cory Collins provides content guidance. Amelia Gragg is our intern. Kate Shuster is the series creator. And our managing producer is Miranda LaFond.
Bethany Jay: If you like what you've heard, please share it with your friends and colleagues. And let us know what you think. You can find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. We always appreciate your feedback.
Bethany Jay: I'm Dr. Bethany Jay, professor of history at Salem State University, and your host for Teaching Hard History.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: If you like what you've heard, please share it with your friends and colleagues. And let us know what you think. You can find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. We always appreciate your feedback.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I'm Dr. Hasan Kwame Jeffries, associate professor of history at The Ohio State University—and your host for Teaching Hard History.
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