How Black Athletes Could Create a Watershed in Activist History

There’s the potential at this juncture for bold black athletes to blend many identity issues and address concerns about Mother Earth simultaneously.

— Organizer for the 2016 Facing Race national conference, which will take place November 10-12 in Atlanta, Georgia.

Let’s think about fighting the good fight really well ringing the public bell from an entirely new angle.

In the 60s, when I was writing for Nat Fleischer, the Ring Magazine publisher and eventual inductee into the Boxing Hall of Fame, the old man told me about how Heavyweight Champion of the world Jack Johnson managed to secure a shot at the title in an age when white heavyweight champions routinely avoided the stiff competition offered up by “Negroes” of the day. Johnson had his way with racist champ Tommy Burns once he caught up with him in Australia — having followed him throughout England, Ireland and France — but he wouldn’t have had a chance in hell at winning that championship belt if he had not shamed him into defending his title, brazenly belittling Burns in public. Calling a spade a spade, as it were.

Boastful, arrogant and in-the-face of whites who cruelly ruled the roost and supported the racist professional pugilistic scene in North America, Jack Johnson forced himself into a position where he could be successful, and achieve the legendary status that he eventually did. He even went so far as to intermingle sexually with white women in the journalistic spotlight*, something that was totally verboten in the early 1900s, and for a long time afterwards. In fact, his proactive profile of snubbing traditional societal mores and refusing to play the expected role of a black athlete risked death by lynching.

*Johnson did get slapped with a year and one-day prison sentence for violating the Mann Act in 1912, the authorities having to torture and twist legal parameters to do so.

He wasn’t a Joe Louis or a Floyd Patterson toeing the proper line. And he certainly wasn’t cut of the same cloth as the best black fighters of his time, “Good Negroes” like West Indian Peter Jackson (“shadow” champion during the reign of John L. Sullivan, the first heavyweight champion) and Canadian George “Old Chocolate” Godfrey; they both knew their place, and didn’t push any envelopes. Harry Wills (“shadow” champion during the reign of Jack Dempsey), most boxing experts agree, would have humiliated the racist Manassa Mauler champ in much the same fashion that Johnson humiliated Burns in 1908. And that was true for a number of polite blacks who were denied championship fights, strong legitimate contenders. But they didn’t make any waves outside the ring, like Johnson did (with a smirk), and they so didn’t secure the opportunities they sought.

You might — understandably — ask why I’m going off on all of this boxing history. Well, I could cite counterparts to the history above, as you may know, by drawing from other sports realms too, spotlighting what happened to black jockeys around the same time, and many other sports figures.. The thing is, ALL black athletes today should understand the point that Nat Fleischer made to me shortly before his death. That is, that the blacks who toed the line as per the parameters set by the whites of their times got nowhere. That the breakthrough for Johnson, who became the first Black Heavyweight Champion of the World, becoming a model for Muhammad Ali, was possible only because he took a grand risk.

Colin Kaepernick’s type of risk is not what I’m talking about. Sitting down during the National Anthem might be an admirable thing to do, yes. But what’s needed for U.S. racism to be turned around is for lots of Kaepernick counterparts to take part in that protest AND AND AND… take even greater risks.

As David Swanson has pointed out there’s a rotten-to-the-core aspect of America that cannot be addressed by simply protesting police brutality, no matter how creatively and dramatically one goes about it. Jackie Robinson, late in life, after having fronted for the mild NAACP of his time, encouraging patience with whites and supporting Nixon, refused to salute the flag. Well, so many decades after his death (in the same year as Fleischer, 1972), where are we?

Chip Ward has made the clear case for our needing to collectively address Climate Change issues with Native Americans in mind, and it’s undeniable that any inroads which black activists carve out respecting identity issues won’t amount to nearly enough if — simultaneously — certain environmental matters aren’t faced up to post haste. By us all, colors all across the spectrum.

The thing is, there aren’t a lot of Chinese in the NFL, and though there are a great many Latinos in baseball, there aren’t enough in the NBA to serve as a foundation for what I’m proposing with the boycott I have in mind. That is, an unprecedented protest that garners more public support than anything that even Cesar Chavez secured with his stance against grape growers back in the day. A watershed in history which could lead to the formation of that “third party” which everyone seems to be begging for these days. Let’s call it, The Good Sports Party.

On that note, I submit that black athletes could change the climate in which racism exists and — at the same time, with no extra effort — call it like it is with regard to Climate Change.

What could they do?

For starters, they could refuse to play ball. AND refuse to play ball in all of our major sports, those being two very different things. They could boycott the country, in effect. Boycott it, as things stand. They could stand up for what’s right, and with regard to what must now be done on an emergency basis.

If they did so, they really could create a watershed in history.

But, yes, that would involve some significant personal risk.

• The conference referenced in the opening quote above will be a national, multi-ethnic gathering of leaders, educators, journalists, artists and activists.

Lauren Gavilan is a descendant of Cuba's Kid Gavilan, and editor of Jazz 'N Blues News. She can be reached at: Read other articles by Lauren.