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A Legacy of African American Resistance and Activism Through Sport


Joseph N. Cooper

In recent years, there has been increased attention garnered toward activism in sport within the United States. In 2016, Colin Kaepernick’s activist act of taking a knee during the national anthem before National Football League games sparked a nationwide debate on the intersection of sports, race, and politics. Kaepernick’s actions were a part of a long lineage of activism in and through sport. Prior accounts of African American activism in and through sport have been limited in the following eight areas: (1) primarily focused on one type of activism (e.g., symbolic protests/boycotts); (2) a lack of differentiation between activism and borderline activist actions (e.g., agency, pioneering, and advocacy); (3) a lack of emphasis on hybrid resistance; (4) a focus on athletes and teams versus sportspersons (i.e., media, scholars, business leaders, and community members) and institutions (i.e., historically Black colleges and universities, athletic programs, and conferences) more broadly; (5) largely focused on one era of prominent athlete activism in the 1960s; (6) principally excluded and marginalized the importance of women’s role in resistance efforts (e.g., activism for social change); (7) primarily focused on activism at the intercollegiate and professional levels with less attention toward youth and interscholastic levels; and (8) a lack of theoretically driven analyses of the resistance efforts exhibited by African American sportspersons, teams, groups, organizations, and institutions. Instead of exclusively using the term activism, the author uses the broader encompassing term of resistance as the focal framework for this text. Resistance is defined as intentional and/or unintentional actions by individuals, groups, organizations, and/or institutions that challenge oppressive systems and ideological hegemony. Using adaptive race- and ethnicity-centric typologies and interdisciplinary theories, this book offers a critical analysis of African Americans’ intra- and inter-generational resistance actions where, when, why, and how sport has been utilized to express their humanity, preserve their cultural heritages, empower themselves and their communities, project political views, and pursue freedom, equality, and justice.

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1 A Sociohistorical Overview of African American Resistance in the United States


Moral, intellectual, and physical resistance is absolutely indispensable. As a struggle for humanity, the struggle of black people is of universal significance. But every struggle is historically situated. Hence, one must begin with the historical situation of black people…Thus the striving to create and affirm our identity and humanity in defiance of racial essentialization and domination forms the common ground for black liberation struggle (Birt, 1997, p. 210).

The African American experience in the United States (U.S.) dating back to the early 17th century can be characterized as an existence of resistance against racial oppression and dehumanization.1 Spivey (1983) offered the following poignant articulation of the unique plight of African Americans: “Protest is synonymous with the experience of Black people in the United States from slavery to the present” (p. 116). However, unlike traditional accounts of African American history that suggest the journey began with enslavement, this text seeks to connect the experiences of African American sportspersons, groups, organizations, and institutions with the broader legacy of African Diasporic existence, empowerment, and excellence.2 Before colonization, African people displayed prowess in a range of areas including agriculture, science, mathematics, engineering, architecture, politics, business, astrology, spirituality, education, and philosophy to name a few (Carruthers, 1999; Williams, 1974/1987). In fact, several scholars have ←25 | 26→argued that colonization and imperialism were a byproduct of Europeans’ recognition of the greatness within African cultures and thus the former’s intrusive actions were intended to co-opt and exploit the knowledge, skills, and resources of the...

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