Globetrotting: African American Athletes and Cold War Politics [NOOK Book]


Throughout the Cold War, the Soviet Union deplored the treatment of African Americans by the U.S. government as proof of hypocrisy in the American promises of freedom and equality. This probing history examines government attempts to manipulate international perceptions of U.S. race relations during the Cold War by sending African American athletes abroad on goodwill tours and in international competitions as cultural ambassadors and visible symbols of American values._x000B__x000B_Damion L. Thomas follows the ...
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Globetrotting: African American Athletes and Cold War Politics

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Throughout the Cold War, the Soviet Union deplored the treatment of African Americans by the U.S. government as proof of hypocrisy in the American promises of freedom and equality. This probing history examines government attempts to manipulate international perceptions of U.S. race relations during the Cold War by sending African American athletes abroad on goodwill tours and in international competitions as cultural ambassadors and visible symbols of American values._x000B__x000B_Damion L. Thomas follows the State Department's efforts from 1945 to 1968 to showcase prosperous African American athletes including Jackie Robinson, Jesse Owens, and the Harlem Globetrotters as the preeminent citizens of the African Diaspora rather than as victims of racial oppression. With athletes in baseball, track and field, and basketball, the government relied on figures whose fame carried the desired message to countries where English was little understood. However, eventually African American athletes began to provide counter-narratives to State Department claims of American exceptionalism, most notably with Tommie Smith and John Carlos's famous black power salute at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics._x000B__x000B_Exploring the geopolitical significance of racial integration in sports during the early days of the Cold War, this book looks at the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations' attempts to utilize sport to overcome hostile international responses to the violent repression of the civil rights movement in the United States. Highlighting how African American athletes responded to significant milestones in American racial justice such as the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision and the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Thomas surveys the shifting political landscape during this period as African American athletes increasingly resisted being used in State Department propaganda and began to use sports to challenge continued oppression._x000B_
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"This accessible, interesting history will broaden sport historians' understanding of sport and the civil rights movement, injecting an internationalist framework that was critical to the viewpoint of the era's African American athletes."--Aram Goudsouzian, author of King of the Court: Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution
"What Damion L. Thomas does in Globetrotting is put the role of athletes from and center, providing welcome depth to this well-known story line. Thomas also demonstrates how these 'Cold Warriors' began to control the diplomatic missions, straying from the State Department's script to interpret their travels for themselves."--The Journal of American History

"Provides an extensive chronology of how racial identity unfolded during the Cold War years, using sport as a ploy that all was well in the U.S.  Recommended." -- Choice
"Globetrotting reveals surprising evidence of the importance the U.S. government placed on sports in waging the Cold War, and makes compelling arguments regarding the changing tenor of African American athletes' involvement in foreign policy initiatives amid the changing climate of the civil rights movement."--American Historical Review

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780252094293
  • Publisher: University of Illinois Press
  • Publication date: 8/24/2012
  • Series: Sport and Society
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 264
  • File size: 483 KB

Meet the Author

Damion L. Thomas is an assistant professor of kinesiology at the University of Maryland.
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African American Athletes and Cold War Politics


Copyright © 2012 Board of trustees of the University of illinois
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-03717-7

Chapter One

The Showcase African American

Paul Robeson, Jackie Robinson, and the Politics of Cold War Prosperity and Repression

Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis convened a historic meeting at the Hotel Roosevelt on December 3, 1943, between the Major League Baseball club owners and the publishers of eight leading African American newspapers. Heretofore, African American newspapers had waged an unsuccessful campaign to force Major League Baseball to allow African Americans to compete for positions on Major League teams. One of the newspapers' most ardent protesters, Sam Lacy of the Pittsburgh Courier, convinced the commissioner to grant the African American press an extensive audience after years of being rebuffed.

Why did Commissioner Landis agree to the meeting? There is no evidence that Landis supported integration in the intervening two decades after he was appointed baseball's first commissioner in 1920. A well-respected attorney who had been appointed to a federal judgeship in 1905 by President Theodore Roosevelt, Landis's acceptance of the commissioner's post served as "a symbol that reassured the [white] public of baseball's honesty and integrity" after the Black Sox scandal of 1919. Through his power to mediate disputes, interpret rules, and police "conduct detrimental to baseball," Landis gained the respect of Major League fans. However, African Americans distrusted Landis because he was the judge that presided over the dubious conviction of Jack Johnson, the first African American heavyweight champion, who was considered a public pariah because of his penchant for marrying white women. After several failed attempts, Johnson was convicted of violating the Mann Act, which forbade the interstate transportation of women for immoral purposes. The law had been intended to stop prostitution: Johnson was convicted for traveling with his wife. Given the political nature of Johnson's conviction, Landis did not appear to be a "friend" to African Americans.

Commissioner Landis's wide authority, coupled with the perception of him as a supporter of the color line, made him a favorite target for African Americans who opposed segregation in baseball. Landis's opening comments at the 1943 meeting portended an ominous outcome. Landis began by repeating an oft-stated argument, "I want it clearly understood that there is no rule, nor to my knowledge has there even been, formal or informal, or any understanding, written or unwritten ... against the hiring of Negroes in the Major Leagues!" By denying the existence of collusion among the owners to prevent American Americans from competing for playing positions in the Major Leagues, Landis's opening statement attempted to preemptively undermine the arguments that would be put forward by the press officials.

Undeterred by Landis's denial, the three representatives of the African American press who were chosen to address the owners made impassioned pleas for greater access for black ballplayers. John Sengstacke of the Chicago Defender appealed to the owners' patriotism. "The forces of hate, at home and abroad, are hard at work," Sengstacke argued. "But we do not believe they will ever sell racism to Americans who have purchased democracy and their right to be free men through blood, sweat, and tears." The thrust of Sengstacke's remarks echoed the powerful "Double V" rhetoric that many African American activists employed during World War II: African Americans soldiers were fighting against German racism abroad and American racism at home. Consequently, Sengstacke's sentiments pressed the point that African Americans had earned an opportunity for full equality based on their wartime sacrifices. Next, Ira F. Lewis of the Pittsburgh Courier appealed to the financial interest of the owners. Lewis argued that the public had already accepted African Americans as athletes by pointing to the large crowds at integrated football and baseball games. His presentation was followed by the Baltimore Afro-American's Howard Murphy's recitation of the publishers' recommendations: First, baseball officials should take "immediate" steps to accept African Americans into the Major Leagues. Additionally, African Americans should not be restricted from competing in the minor league system or barred from entering the high school draft and other spaces from which Major League players were scouted. Last, Major League Baseball was asked to release a public statement saying African Americans were eligible for trials and permanent places on Major League teams.

One of the peculiarities of the meeting was Landis's decision to invite another African American to address the owners: Paul Robeson. Certainly, Robeson was the most famous of all the African Americans who were in attendance. Robeson's stature was so immense, at the time he was the only African American who could make a reasonable claim to be as well known globally and domestically as Joe Louis, the heavyweight boxing champion. The famed actor and singer had maintained a prolonged public profile dating back to his selection as an All-America football player in 1917 and 1918 as a student-athlete at Rutgers University. His success on the field caused one sportswriter to label him a "football genius." Walter Camp, the legendary coach at Yale University, referred to him as a "veritable superman" when he made him the first Rutgers player to appear on his All-America team. Robeson, who attended Rutgers on an academic scholarship, proved himself equally adept in the classroom: he was elected into the prestigious Phi Beta Kappa Society for his academic achievement, and he was the class valedictorian.

While making a living as a professional football player, Robeson completed his law degree at Columbia University, but was refused admittance to the American Bar Association. Turning his attention to acting and singing, Robeson became an international star. Among his most memorable performances was as the lead character in a Broadway run of Shakespeare's Othello. After receiving rave reviews during his twelve years in London, Robeson became the first black actor to reprise the role on Broadway. As a singer, Robeson was noted for his command of Negro spirituals. His exceptional talents caused many white Americans to assert that "the system worked," despite the steep racial barriers African Americans faced. Robeson symbolized the idea that ambitious and talented African Americans could overcome racial restrictions no matter how daunting. Some people referred to his success as validation of the American social order, despite the prevalence of segregation.

Landis invoked Robeson's great career when he explained to the baseball officials why he had personally invited the stage star and former athlete to address them. "I brought Paul here because you all know him," Landis explained. "You all know that he is a great man in public life, a great American." Explaining that he accepted Commissioner Landis's invitation because he was "deeply" committed to fighting racial injustice, Robeson offered a personal account of his experiences as the first African American to play varsity football at Rutgers University, as a professional football player, and as the foremost African American stage actor of his generation. Robeson asked the assembled delegates to ignore the fear of financial repercussions. Alluding to the threats of cancellations and disturbances that accompanied his participation on Rutgers's football team, the skilled orator noted that the "games were played and nothing happened." Describing the owners' fear of racial violence as "groundless," Robeson beseeched the owners to look at his success and the lack of accompanying violence on the football field and in high-class theaters as evidence of the American public's willingness to accept integrated competition. The essence of Robeson's message was that the "social" side of integrated sports had been settled. His speech was met with a rousing ovation.

As the unprecedented meeting drew to a close, Commissioner Landis asked the owners if they had any questions. His plea was met with an unsettling silence. Had the patriotic and financial arguments as well as Robeson's personal narrative been convincing? Immediately after, Commissioner Landis held a two-hour closed-door conference with the owners. As baseball's decision makers discussed the merits of the arguments presented, the African American press officials and other sympathetic press members waited for an official response to the meeting. With an air of expectation, the assembled newspapermen listened carefully as Landis emerged from the owners' private meeting. Anticipating a momentumshifting statement, they were disappointed as Landis began: "Each club is entirely free to employ Negro players to any and all extent it pleases.... The matter is solely for each club's decision, without restriction whatsoever." Rather than a groundbreaking condemnation of the unwritten rule, coupled with a plan of action, the awaiting press officials were presented with a statement that echoed earlier denials.

There were a number of frustrated responses to Landis's timid declaration. Alvin Moses, a columnist for the Atlanta Daily World, dismissively referred to the entire affair as "window dressing." The Cleveland Call and Post's Bob Williams accused Landis of inaction by noting that Landis had "adroitly sidestepped any actual facing of the issue." Williams's sentiments were echoed by Joel W. Smith of the Atlanta Daily World. Smith castigated Landis's statement as "typical," by which Smith argued Landis sought the "easiest way out" by placing the blame elsewhere. Indeed, Landis's words did not commit the commissioner's office to a course of action. Nonetheless, Landis's words also engendered hope among many in the African American community.

Some press accounts noted that Landis's statement suggested that he would not be an obstacle to the successful integration of Major League Baseball. African American columnist Wendell Smith referred to Landis's words as an "official bombshell." Smith, who had attended the meeting, reported in the Pittsburgh Courier that he told the commissioner that he had made friends in black America because of his "uncompromising stand on Negro ball players." Smith reported that Landis replied, "I am glad to know that. Perhaps something will develop. I don't know." Landis's statement placed the burden of action upon the owners. One unidentified publisher who attended the meeting said that the meeting helped them clarify their target. This was a decisive moment because the agitators now knew that they could "localize" their fight for integration. Robeson told the New Guide and Journal: "Pressure in each town must be brought upon the team to hire Negroes." Robeson's support of the new strategy suggests that he thought the meeting and the new targeted campaign held potential.

It is debatable whether this meeting had a profound effect on the effort to integrate baseball. However, there are some important elements that dovetail with subsequent developments. Branch Rickey was in attendance at the meeting. However, Rickey did not stress the 1943 meeting as a stimulant for his plan to integrate baseball. Localized campaigning was a tactical tool in Boston and New York, where several high-profile attempts to integrate baseball were unsuccessful between the 1943 meeting and the signing of Jackie Robinson. For example, in Boston it was illegal to play baseball on Sundays. However, the Boston Braves and Boston Red Sox had been granted waivers to the law, which allowed them to schedule games during lucrative weekend dates. In 1945 city councilman Isadore Muchnick threatened to block the waiver if African Americans were not allowed to try out for the teams. Based on Muchnick's resolve, three African American players—including Jackie Robinson—were allowed to display their skill in a tryout for the Boston Red Sox. Subsequent accounts of the move stressed that the athletes did not have a realistic opportunity to compete for roster positions. The tryout did not lead to integration, but it did support the idea that local pressure was an important weapon.

Nonetheless, it is indisputable that Robeson was firmly committed to lending his fame and personal narrative to the efforts to desegregate baseball. As an ardent supporter of the oppressed, Robeson had a track record of speaking out against injustice. In many ways, Robeson's hatred of segregation and injustice was matched by the man who integrated baseball in 1947, Jackie Robinson. One of the ironies of both of their lives is that they would eventually end up pitted against each other by U.S. government officials before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1949. Robeson, whom the HUAC sought to chastise for "anti-American" comments abroad, was both praised and condemned by Jackie Robinson during his moving testimony.

"The Showcase African American: Paul Robeson, Jackie Robinson, and the Politics of Cold War Prosperity and Repression" explains both the Cold War context and the costs associated with Jackie Robinson's integration of Major League Baseball. Traditional narratives about the integration of baseball tend to look back to World War II or ahead to the civil rights movement. By placing the integration of sport between these two monumental events, sports are depicted as a moment on a continuum of racial evolution that highlights progress. However, if we examine Jackie Robinson's integration of baseball as an aspect of the Cold War, we see that integration and Cold War repression are closely aligned. This chapter argues that the integration of baseball had a direct relationship with a core American foreign policy objective: manipulating international perception of American race relations. Hence, it explores the relationship between Cold War repression and racial integration after the articulation of the Truman Doctrine. By examining the historical context of Jackie Robinson's testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, this chapter examines the processes through which the U.S. government resolved to alter international opinions of American race relations rather than provide substantive changes to the segregated racial order in the early days of the Cold War, as well as the transformations in American political thought that allowed for those changes.

The Ideological Underpinnings of Cold War America

Allied wartime egalitarian rhetoric had suggested that post–World War II access to the "American Dream" would expand for African Americans. To that end, immediately after World War II, athletics were at the center of the effort to construct a more inclusive American society. Happy Chandler, who was named commissioner of Major League Baseball in April 1945, said that if African Americans could die fighting for freedom in foreign lands, they should be able to enjoy it in their homeland. "I am for the Four Freedoms," Chandler stated, "and if a black boy can make it at Okinawa and go to Guadalcanal, he can make it in baseball." Branch Rickey, the general manager of the Dodgers, saw Chandler's openness as an opportunity to improve his baseball team by signing African American players.

Branch Rickey was a complex and innovative man: pious, moralistic, yet sensitive to the delicate balance one often had to navigate between one's faith and one's financial opportunities. Rickey frequently claimed that he had spent forty years thinking about how to integrate baseball. Yet he rejected confrontation as a tactical approach. To that end, he was furious when Benjamin Davis, a Georgia-born, Harvard-educated, communist city councilmen in New York, published a pamphlet that depicted a dead African American soldier on the cover with the caption: "Good enough to die for his country but not good enough to play baseball." The fiercely anticommunist Rickey acknowledged that "I am for your cause [the integration of baseball] more than anybody else I know ... but you are making a mistake using force ... dictating in this matter.... It will fail because it is a matter of evolution, not revolution."

Described by Time as a mixture of P. T. Barnum and Billy Sunday, Rickey correctly gauged that postwar America would be willing to experiment with the notion of racially mixed baseball teams. Nonetheless, he moved very cautiously and calculatedly with his plans to integrate. After extensive planning, Rickey chose Jackie Robinson to be the "lone standard bearer, upon whose success or failure the fate of the entire venture would be determined."


Excerpted from Globetrotting by DAMION L. THOMAS Copyright © 2012 by Board of trustees of the University of illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction 1

1 The Showcase African American: Paul Robeson, Jackie Robinson, and the Politics of Cold War Prosperity and Repression 13

2 "Spreading the Gospel of Basketball": The Harlem Globetrotters, the State Department, and the Minstrel Tradition, 1945-54 41

3 Playing Politics: The Formation of the U.S. Cold War-Era Athletic Foreign Policy 75

4 "The Good Negroes": Propaganda and the Racial Crisis 103

5 Black Power: International Politics and the Revolt of the Black Athlete 133

Epilogue 167

Notes 171

Bibliography 191

Index 201

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