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COMMENTARY: Remembering Sports' Role in the Civil Rights Movement

Charles E. Sutton | 2/14/2014, 3 p.m.
As I journey through this month of February, I'll certainly remember the contributions of George Washington Carver, Harriet Tubman and ...
Curt Flood

Being a Black man who's living, working and thriving in today's United States, I must admit that I am moved by the very notion of Black History Month. So, on this day, in this month, if I become a bit long-winded, I ask for your patience and understanding.

Black History Month is now in full swing. Of course, black history means different things to different people. When I think of black history, I think of the civil rights movement.

Being the sports fanatic that I am, I can't help but wonder what impact the civil rights movement has had on professional sports. We all realize that professional sports have been impacted in several ways by the civil rights movement, but for me, my mind constantly focuses on Jackie Robinson. His portrait is indelibly etched on my mental canvas. He is the face of sports as it relates to civil rights.

Here in the United States is where the civil rights movement took place from approximately 1945 to 1975. Its goal was to outlaw racial discrimination against African-Americans and restore voting rights to them. The civil rights movement included 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 civil rights 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, and yes, sports! That also included professional sports. One of the greatest examples of this occurred when baseball player Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball's color barrier in 1947.

Just four years earlier, Paul Robeson, the activist, singer, and athlete became the first black man to address major league baseball team owners on the subject of integration. At the owners' annual winter meeting, Robeson argued that major league baseball, 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 Major League Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis stated after the meeting that 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 twenty years. His death in 1944 removed a significant barrier to integrating Major league Baseball. Still, Robeson is credited with being a major factor in blazing the trail for Jackie Robinson's entry into major league baseball three years later.

On April 15, 1947, Robinson broke the racial barrier in major league baseball. Branch Rickey, president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, announced that 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.