By Tom Krattenmaker
There was a time when some of the country’s leading African American athletic figures, religious or otherwise, spoke out for racial justice and addressed the pressing social justice issues of the day. One of the most enduring images of “the black athlete” remains the photograph from the climactic moment of the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City in which African American track stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos stand on the victory dais in their USA uniforms, each raising one black-gloved hand with his fingers clenched in a first—the symbol of black power. The gesture, as historian Amy Bass writes, was threatening and upsetting to much of America, and it earned Smith and Carlos the harsh criticism of U.S. Olympic officials and many members of the public.
Smith and Carlos were not associated with religiosity. But a survey of the social and athletic landscape of that era does find high-profile Christian black athletic figures involved in progressive political causes, including two of the leading luminaries of that time—Gale Sayers, and Jackie Robinson, the African American who broke the major league baseball color barrier.
Gale Sayers describes his faith, his social conscience, and his first forays into activism in his landmark autobiography “I Am Third.” (The book’s title speaks to the important role of religion in Sayers’ life. As he explained its meaning, God was first, his family second, and “I am third.”) Sayers, who began attending an Episcopal church during his collegiate career in Lawrence, Kansas, formed a friendship with the young Jesse Jackson in the late 1960s and began paying closer attention to race issues. Prompting some in football to label him a troublemaker or “militant,” Sayers lent his visibility and voice to some of Jackson’s causes. He helped promote Jackson’s Operation Breadbasket and picketed with Jackson and his group at a supermarket located in a black neighborhood, protesting its discriminatory hiring and pricing practices. Also, Sayers became cochair of the Sports Committee of a legal defense fund for the NAACP and was appointed a Chicago parks commissioner, a position he used to advocate for equal contract-bidding opportunities for black contractors and construction workers.
The story of Christian faith and political activism is even more dramatic with Jackie Robinson. From his upbringing by a fervently devout mother in California, to his pact with the thoroughly religious Brooklyn Dodgers general manager who signed him to play in the major leagues, to his post-baseball career in business and activism, faith played a central role in Jackie Robinson’s life.
Robinson’s Christianity was deep in his heart, if not always on his sleeve. Biographer Arnold Rampersad describes Robinson’s religious turn not as a point-in-time conversion in the mold of today’s popular evangelism, but as a process that began in his youth and accelerated when Robinson as a young man developed a mentor-protégé relationship with a dynamic pastor as his church, Karl Downs. “Downs became a conduit,” Rampersad writes, “through which [Robinson's mother's] message of religion and hope finally flowed into Jack’s consciousness and was fully accepted there, if on revised terms, as he himself reached manhood. Faith in God then began to register in him as both a mysterious force, beyond his comprehension, and a pragmatic way to negotiate the world. A measure of emotion and spiritual poise such as he had never known at last entered his life.
Robinson’s Christian faith, in combination with his determination and political instincts, manifested in his turn-the-other-check method of dealing with the racial taunts heaped upon him by opposing players and fans when he began playing with the Dodgers in 1947. It is important to note that “turning the other cheek,” when seen in the context of Jesus’ time as well as the politics of the mid-twentieth century, is best understood not merely as an act of passivity but also as a form of defiant nonviolent resistance. Accounts of the history-making, pact-sealing meeting between Robinson and Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey make clear that this crucial turn-the-other-cheek teaching from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount played a critical role in the strategy devised by the two men for dealing with the insults and epithets Robinson would hear on major league diamonds.
After his playing career, Robinson became more directly involved in politics. His involvement with Richard Nixon and the Republican party could give the impression that Robinson was a conservative, but that would be a vast over-simplification of Robinson’s politics as well as party dynamics of a half-century ago. Certainly, on the matter of racism, Robinson was anything but a denier and status quo defender. Among his many roles, he was a spokesman for the NAACP; a supporter of and speaker for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; the founder of the Church Fund, which raised money to rebuild black churches razed in retaliation for their roles as centers for civil rights organizing and agitating; and, like Sayers, a board member of Jesse Jackson’s Operation Breadbasket.
Today, by contrast with Sayers and Robinson, African American Christian athletes overwhelmingly tend to remain mute on matters political, and on the rare occasions they do reveal themselves, the stripes they bear are usually conservative. Although many express a form of social commitment by working with youths, starting charitable foundations, and pursuing other forms of community service, today there are few instances of black Christian sports stars speaking out on race or other social justice issues, or publically questioning a sports-industrial complex in which very few black secure employment in executive suites and owners boxes despite performing the preponderance of the “labor” in football and basketball.