Black athletes: Beyond the field

Through their athletic exploits, Dr. J, Jim Brown, Bill Russell and others gave voice to a people. David Liam Kyle/NBAE/Getty Images

"Don," Dr. Martin Luther King once said to baseball great Don Newcombe, "I don't know what I would have done without you guys -- setting up the minds of the people for change. You, Jackie [Robinson] and Roy [Campanella] will never know how easy you made it for me to do my job."

That basically says it all.

What do you see when you see Muhammad Ali?

When you look at Jim Brown, Arthur Ashe, Jackie Robinson, Jesse Owens, Joe Louis, Julius Erving, Reggie Jackson, Hank Aaron, Bill Russell … what do you see?

Most black folks in America don't just see great athletes. Our situation is much deeper. Our athletes have most often served a deeper purpose than their sports heroics. We see in them sources of salvation. At times, they make us look at sports as more than fun and games. We look at those who play them as more than athletes whose feats are on YouTube for our kids to watch.

To trace our history, black/African-American history, is to discover and then realize that the role of sports has never been only recreation, only something we do for exercise or entertainment. For us, sports has been a component of freedom. It's been the voice we've found through our arms and legs when our mouths have been silenced.

Our journey into this so-called American mainstream or melting pot begins and ends in sports. As documented in books such as William C. Rhoden's "Forty Million Dollar Slaves" and Dave Zirin's "A People's History of Sports in the United States," sports and sports icons have played major roles on often-uneven playing fields in shaping the way white America has come to "accept" us as something more than three-fifths human.

It's enough to make you laugh to avoid shedding tears.

Of course, the same theme applies to other forms of "entertainment," although perhaps to a lesser extent. Song, dance and jokes have all been equalizers in our struggle for a taste of equality. Sidney Poitier is not just an actor to us. Josephine Baker not just a dancer, not just a singer. The role of black comedians in the push back against political and social segregation is very similar to the part that sports figures played in that struggle. In "Why We Laugh: Black Comedians on Black Comedy," Robert Townsend's documentary about the history of black comedy in America, it is said that comedians "have always led the way for the quest for freedom among blacks in America."

Amos 'n' Andy. Dick Gregory's meaning to the civil rights movement. Redd Foxx, Moms Mabley, Flip Wilson and Richard Pryor. We've dealt with racism through television ("The Jeffersons," "The Cosby Show") and other forms of comedy. The question continues to be asked: Would President Obama have been elected if America had not experienced the Huxtables first?

Even today, whether you agree with him or not, the person who is on the front line for internal change in African-American society and who is the most outspoken about the condition of black folk in America is Bill Cosby. A comedian.

Just as sports always has been more than a game for us, comedy always has been more than a joke.

John Carlos and Tommie Smith aren't just Olympic medalists to us; they are activists. Even Beverly Johnson, the first black model to appear on the cover of Vogue (which historically has not favored African-American models when it comes to choosing its covers), said during her segment in HBO's documentary "The Black List: Vol. 3" that they were her inspiration.

In the book "After Jackie," Walter Cronkite tells a story about his childhood. A white dentist his family was visiting in Houston hit a black delivery boy for stepping on his front porch while trying to deliver ice cream. "Nigger," the dentist said, according to Cronkite, "this will teach you to never step foot on a white man's front porch."

"Aside from the obvious prejudice," Cronkite said, "what you must realize is that in those days a delivery boy was the sort of job open to blacks. For the most part, good jobs weren't available to African-Americans. After Jackie Robinson came along, we began to see African-Americans playing professional baseball, football and basketball -- and slowly, but surely working in every walk of life. We clearly haven't achieved total equality in any area of work and we have a long way to go, but after Jackie entered the Major Leagues, that's when the picture started to change."

Which takes us back to King. Not Bernard or James, but Martin Luther, at the top. The man who acknowledged to Newcombe the true role that sports played in advancing some form of civil rights and dignity for us at a time when the world around us didn't even want us to drink from the same water fountains as it did.

When Jack Johnson won a boxing match, when Willie Mays caught a ball over his shoulder, when Jesse Owens outran the Germans, when Althea Gibson won Wimbledon, when Jackie Robinson didn't retaliate, when Ali verbally and politically did retaliate … we could drink.

As one of our other historically relevant black leaders once said to Alex Haley during an interview in 1968 for Playboy:

"I am a man, a black man, in a culture where black manhood has been kicked around and threatened for generations. So that's why I don't feel I need to take too much advice about how I'm supposed to think and act. And that's why I have to tell the truth like I see it. Maybe some people will holler; maybe they'll hate me for it. But I'll just stick it out, walk tall and wait for the truth to be vindicated."

In the interview, Haley asked, "How long do you think that will take?"

And he responded: "I can't say how long; I can't worry about that. That doesn't even matter to me. All that matters is to see more and more black people mobilized and working toward constructive self-help goals. I want more black people to realize that hard fact that unless we do this, all the other gains aren't going to make a difference. If in my lifetime I can see that this idea really has taken hold, then I will have the satisfaction of knowing that true freedom -- as black men and black Americans -- will finally be within our grasp."

Malcolm X, right?


A young Jesse Jackson or H. Rap Brown?

Adam Clayton Powell? Elijah Muhammad? Huey Newton? Stokely Carmichael? Medgar Evers? Bayard Rustin? A. Philip Randolph?


Those are the words of Jim Brown.

As I said …

Scoop Jackson is a columnist for ESPN.com.