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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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6 Resistance through Sport: The Pursuit of Social Justice and Societal Change


Let me give you a philosophy of reform. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle (Douglass, 1857, p. 1).

The impact of African American sportspersons transcends their athletic accomplishments. However, in mainstream media coverage and much of scholarly literature on African Americans’ involvement in sport has focused on pioneering achievements, championship victories, and innovative styles of performance (Ashe, 1988). Contrary to popular post-Civil Rights Movement (CRM) liberalist assessments, African Americans in sport have persistently been connected to the plight of their race within the U.S. and internationally. Yet, the difference in their impacts lies in their intentions and the time, space, and context of their actions. Depending on the era, different forms of resistance were more readily accessible, popularized, and normalized. For example, organizational and institutional activism were more commonplace in the New Negro Movement (NNM) era from the 1900–1950s (also referred to as The Golden Era of African American Sport Resistance) due to the racially segregated structure of society. In other words, the outright exclusion of African Americans from Euro White American (EWA) sporting spaces created a necessity for self-determination if any opportunities were going to be created. Whereas in the CRM, Black Power Movement (BPM), ←305 | 306→and Black Feminist Movement (BFM) eras in the 1960s– 1970s, grassroots, mass mobilization, and symbolic activism were popularized in concert with the increased presence of African Americans on U.S. Olympic,...

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