African-American Discrimination in Sports: 1940-1970
Baseball 1945 A talented young man from UCLA would set the wheel in motion for the biggest turning point in Professional baseball history. He was first athlete in school history to letter in four different sports and had shown promise playing in the American Negro League. He got the attention of Brooklyn Dodger’s GM Branch Rickey, who called him into his office that day in Brooklyn. It was there that Rickey chose Jackie Robinson to be the first African-American to play in major league history. Rickey believed that Robinson had not just the talent to take on such a challenge, but had the attitude and strength to overcome the inevitable racial taunts and actions. Jackie passed all of his tests in the interview and went off to start his memorable career for the Montreal Royals, and soon after, the Brooklyn Dodgers. His story and contributions turned him into the greatest icon of the de-segregation of sports. Baseball would never be the same.
Basketball & Football 1954 Paul Hornung was the Heisman winner and the most influential player of Notre Dame’s football program. One day, Paul heard that a local restaurant owner refused to serve Tom Hawkins, a member of the basketball team, based on the color of his skin. Feeling like this kind of treatment was wrong and that white and black athletes have to stick together, Paul and a handful of teammates marched down to the restaurant and demanded that Hawkins would be served. The owner immediately backed down and gave in to his demands. Hawkins was grateful and never forgot those actions, even when he went on to become a professional basketball player. Small actions like these from white players started to rise up more and more often as larger pushes for racial equality swept the nation.
Football 1960 The Green Bay Packers, an up and coming team in the National Football League, acquired a black defensive end named Willie Davis. He was the first African American to represent the Packers. When he arrived at training camp, head coach Vince Lombardi wanted to send an immediate message to the rest of the team. He assigned Davis to stay with a white teammate, an action that was unheard of. Lombardi believed that color did not matter and that they were all in this together. Davis, Lombardi, and that rest of the team went on to turn the Packers into one of the most successful, storied franchises in pro-football history. Lombardi’s actions against racial segregation would just be a small part of the enormous legacy he would eventually go on to build.
All Sports 1964 On a quiet summer day in Washington D.C., one of the most important pieces of legislation was making its way through Congress. This was the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The law prohibited “discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.” (Senate.gov) The House of Representatives passed the Senate version of the bill in the morning and was signed into effect by President Johnson that very afternoon. After decades of suffering, African-American athletes could now expect to be treated on the same level as whites legally. It showed that America had finally reached the next level for socially equality. But, segregation was not immediately banished. Problems with enforcing and abiding by the law would continue on…
Football 1965 Even with the passing of the Civil Rights Act, African-American athletes still experienced some segregation in southern states. This was evident during the American Football League All Star Game which was scheduled to be held in New Orleans in 1965. City officials had promised the league that the city was safe and ready for such an event. When blacks arrived, problems were immediately evident. Many were stranded at the airport as taxi drivers refused to serve them and those who did find transportation found difficulty attending night clubs and restaurants. Frustrated, all 21 African-American all stars met together and decided to sit out of the game. Soon after, a handful of other white players joined the boycott. The situation caused the league to move the game to Houston. The boycott “shined a spotlight on Congress’s ability to enforce the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and proved that if America was to desegregate, the culture needed to change its mindset and adopt a more progressive view of the human race as quickly as possible.” (PFHOF)
Conclusion The period between 1940 and 1970 saw rapid changes for African-Americans. In the sports world, players would end up at the point of equal treatment from every team. The treatment from people outside of sports, however, still was a looming issue that will continue on for years. The passage of the Civil Rights Act was a huge step but it would take time for people to finally change themselves and accept new social standards.