Authors: Simon Henderson
How American Sports
Black Freedom Struggle
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Henderson, Simon, 1979-
Sidelined : how American sports challenged the Black freedom struggle / Simon Henderson.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-0-8131-4154-1 (hardcover : alk. paper) â
ISBN 978-0-8131-4155-8 (pdf) â ISBN 978-0-8131-4156-5 (epub)
1. Discrimination in sportsâUnited StatesâHistory. 2. SportsâSocial aspectsâUnited States. 3. African American athletesâSocial conditions. 4. African American athletesâHistory. 5. African American athletesâBiography. 6. African AmericansâCivil rightsâHistory. 7. Civil rights movementsâUnited StatesâHistory I. Title.
This book is printed on acid-free paper meeting the requirements of the American National Standard for Permanence in Paper for Printed Library Materials.
Manufactured in the United States of America.
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American University Presses
This book originated in the PhD thesis that I completed in 2010. The project started out as an examination of the response of white athletes to the black athletic revolt of the late 1960s. This was a movement that sought to expose the prevailing ideal of racial equality in the sporting world. What emerged as this investigation unfolded was the unique part played by sport in the wider black freedom struggle. The protests that made up the black athletic revolt on the national and local stage traversed the traditional historical frameworks applied to that struggle for equality. Athletes and administrators were involved in a protest dynamic that showed the interconnectedness of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements. Reactions to the protests of both black and white athletes provided one dimension of the white backlash of the late 1960s. This backlash helped to stifle the full potential of sport to positively affect civil rights activism and, paradoxically, reinforced the ideal that sport was an area of society that led the way in the search for racial equality.
These developments took place during a transitional phase of the black freedom struggle. The black athletic revolt straddled the conventional paradigms of the fight for black civil rights. Traditional accounts of the freedom struggle in America in the 1960s have focused on the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements. They have contrasted the tactics and strategies of these two strands of the struggle for equality. Taylor Branch, in
Parting the Waters,
refers to “America in the King years,” which he designates as 1954â1963. In his concluding comments Branch argues, “Kennedy's murder marked the arrival of the freedom surge, just as King's own death four years hence marked its demise.”
In his survey of the fight for black equality from 1890 to 2000, Adam Fairclough devotes three chapters to the “non-violent rebellion” starting in 1955 and ending with the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He then examines the rise and fall of Black Power, beginning in 1965 and ending with the first years of the Nixon administration.
The Civil Rights Movement has been framed as the period from the
Brown v. Board of Education
decision to the mid-1960s, when a new period of Black Power activism began. In many of
these accounts Black Power was viewed, as Peniel Joseph has observed, as the “evil twin” of the Civil Rights Movement.
This characterization of the black freedom struggle helps us see change but it blurs continuity and hides the true complexity of the past with a simplistic picture. Jacquelyn Dowd Hall has led those historians who argue for a different chronology, a “long Civil Rights Movement” that provides a more complex and complete picture of race relations, stretching back to the 1930s and forward into the 1970s and beyond.
She seeks to expand our understanding of the nuances of the struggle for equality by stretching the time frame of the Civil Rights Movement beyond the traditional parameters of study.
Identifying when that movement began is problematic. It was the constitutional amendments of the Reconstruction period that set the agenda for the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. These amendments enshrined civil rights as a legal fact, and liberal interpretations of those amendments by the Warren Court and Johnson administration gave birth to legislation such as the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act a year later. So it could be argued that the Civil Rights Movement, so defined, stretched back for a hundred years. The danger with this chronological and interpretive framework is that it diminishes the distinctiveness of different phases of civil rights activism. These different phases are important. We must not allow patterns of continuity to obscure clear changes and turning points.
Similarly, recent scholarship on the Black Power Movement has shown both the cultural and political importance of that movement and its longer-term origins. Rather than being a frustrated response to the perceived slow change of the 1960s, it had deep roots in black radical tradition and can be traced back to the 1950s.
In recognition of the issues surrounding these thematic and chronological parameters, a note on terminology is important. The terms
black freedom struggle, freedom struggle,
civil rights struggle
are used interchangeably throughout this study because of issues of style and to avoid too much repetition. They are used to refer to civil rights activism that stretched throughout the 1960s, originated long before that decade, and continued in its aftermath. The key reason for this is that the activism that surrounded the black athletic revolt does not fit neatly inside the conventional chronological phases of that struggle. The black athletic revolt exhibited tactics and themes that drew from the traditions of both the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement. The revolt revealed a great deal about the progress of race relations as the black freedom
struggle traversed a course between these two elements of the same struggle.
A study of the black athletic revolt is a crucial element in our understanding of the civil rights struggle because sport is a vital component of the American cultural experience. For his exposition of high school football in Texas,
Friday Night Lights,
Henry Bissinger found a community that exemplified many Americans' passion for sporting competition. A blurb on the book's back cover praised
Friday Night Lights
for offering “a biting indictment of the sports craziness that grips â¦ most of American society, while at the same time providing a moving evocation of its powerful allure.”
During the research for this project I have spoken to scores of former athletes who mention the fervor connected with this “sports craziness.” Sport in America is a multibillion-dollar industry. Professional sports franchises have a massive media presence and attract thousands of fans. Crucially, high school and college sports have a huge following and provide the focal point for communities all across the United States. This is why a full understanding of the black athletic revolt needs to embrace a regional element. It is also why organized sport provides a unique and valuable arena through which to study the progress of the freedom struggle. In gymnasiums and on athletic tracks across the United States in the 1960s the racial changes dominating the political agenda were tested and adapted.
The recent emergence of fresh scholarship on both the black athletic revolt and the story of integration of American college sports is testament to the importance of these stories for an understanding of American race relations. In
Race, Culture and the Revolt of the Black Athlete,
Douglas Hartmann traces the evolution of the black athletic revolt and considers the broader cultural and racial meaning of sport. Hartmann argues that sport provides a “contested racial terrain” that has the potential to both promote and hold back racial progress.
Complimenting this work on the black athletic revolt is Amy Bass's
Not the Triumph but the Struggle: The 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete.
Bass focuses more directly on the black athlete as a historical figure and uses the Olympic protest movement as a focal point from which to study changes in the perception of black athletes and their own racial consciousness. Both Hartmann and Bass provide a valuable insight into the dynamics and lasting consequences of the black athletic revolt.