The Civil Rights Movement's Impact on Sports

Charles E. Sutton | 2/3/2012, 12:33 p.m.

From approximately 1945 to 1975, the United States experienced the civil rights era. This movement, commonly known as the civil rights movement aimed to outlaw racial discrimination against African-Americans and restore voting rights to them. The civil rights movement includes specific legislation and organized efforts to abolish public and private acts of racial discrimination against African-Americans and other disadvantaged groups, particularly in the southern United States. Over time, the goals of the movement expanded to include economic and political self-sufficiency, racial dignity, and freedom from oppression by White Americans.

The civil rights movement ultimately led to the end of legal racial discrimination in all aspects of American culture, such as education, employment, housing, transportation, sports, etc. One of the greatest examples of this was baseball player Jackie Robinson breaking Major League Baseball's (MLB) color barrier. Just four years earlier, Paul Robeson, the activist, singer, and athlete became the first black man to address MLB team owners on the subject of integration. At the owners' annual winter meeting, Robeson argued that the MLB, as a national game, had an obligation to ensure that segregation did not become a national pattern.

The owners gave Robeson a standing ovation. Even though MLB Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis stated after the meeting there was no rule on the books denying blacks entry into the league, he had personally stood in the way of integration for more than 20 years. His death in 1944 removed a significant barrier to integrating the game. Still, Robeson is credited with being a major factor in blazing the trail for Jackie Roosevelt Robinson's entry into the sport four years later.

On April 15, 1947, Robinson broke the MLB racial barrier. Branch Rickey, president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, announced Robinson had signed a contract with his team. As the first African-American to play in the major leagues, Robinson immediately became the target of malicious verbal abuse. Speaking retrospectively on his first season with the Brooklyn Dodgers in his autobiography, Robinson described how he played the best baseball he could as waves of abuse were dumped on him, and the entire country focused its attention on his game. Having established a "reputation as a black man who didn't tolerate affronts to his dignity," he now found it within himself to resist the urge to strike back. In the stadium, he responded to the people he called "haters" with the perfect eloquence of a line drive base hit. In 1949, his best season, Robinson was named the league's Most Valuable Player, and in 1962 he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. He retired from the major leagues in 1956.

After Robinson left baseball, he continued to help lead the cause of civil rights. Having garnered the attention of America on the baseball field, he now spread the message that racial integration in every facet of American society would strengthen the country, just as surely as it had strengthened the game of baseball. Every American President who occupied the office between 1956 and 1972 received letters from Robinson expressing various levels of criticism for not doing enough to advance the cause of civil rights. Unwilling to compromise and indifferent to party affiliation, he measured a President's performance by his level of commitment to civil rights. Robinson's position was firm and nonnegotiable.