World War II and the Rise of Integrating Sports

After the second World War sport in the United States greatly changed. A large part of this was due to the fact that the attitudes towards black people had significantly flipped during this time. Before World War II, the segregation that was being observed throughout the country was no different than the segregation in sports. There were teams that had all black members and they would play against teams that had all white members. As the black teams began to dominate the sports, white athletes pushed to ban these interracial games because they were scared they were going to lose the white superiority that they had had for so many years. Fear of losing to a group of African American athletes swept white teams. The white athletes made up numerous myths and phrases of hate, including slurs about low intelligence and criminal tendencies, in an effort to cover their fear.

The segregation in sports is seen to be caused by two factors: during this time whites did not want to be associated with black people and white people viewed black people as inferior (Shropshire, p.34). These views were common to most white people in the United States at this time and there was no difference in their thoughts about integrating sports. Because of the tensions caused by the World War, whites saw anyone who was not white as inferior to them and therefore wanted nothing to do with any race other than white. This was not only in race relations abroad but also domestically. This played a huge role in the racial tensions present in the United States during World War 2.

Even though black athletes were not able to participate in professional sports, they were allowed to compete in the Olympics. Jesse Owens, for example, was a runner in the 1936 Olympics proved that the myths told about black athletes were being fabricated and were inherently false. Jesse Owens got the gold medal in every event he ran including the long jump, 100 meter, 200 meter, and 4×100 meter relay. Although Jesse Owens brought home gold for the United States and proved that blacks could compete with whites the attitudes towards blacks did not change—they were still seen as inferior and less than any other white.

Because of the lack of inclusivity and the want of black athletes to play sports, the African American athletes created their own professional league called the Negro National League—a baseball league for only African Americans (Laliberte, p.340).  This is just an example of one of the many segregated leagues the African Americans created to give themselves an opportunity to play the sports the loved. The negro leagues, however, only further separated the races and it was not long after they were established that forces started tearing the races further apart and a need for change was in demand.

Shortly after World War II, Jackie Robinson signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers 1947. Although many people give credit to Robinson for breaking the color barrier, it should be noted that he only broke the barrier in baseball. Two years earlier, the Los Angeles Rams broke this barrier in the National Football League. The Rams had two black athletes, Kenny Washington and Woody Strode, sign with them two years before Robinson signed with the Dodgers. Jackie Robinson’s signing is more publicized now because baseball is America’s game. The African Americans who had the courage to break the streak of segregation in sports, and in everyday life, were the ones who should hold the honor of creating a watershed moment in America’s race history.

When sports began to integrate, other aspects of everyday life also began to integrate. From experience, when I am on the field all my teammates play for one common goal—leading our team to victory. If I have disagreements or different views than a teammate, we put those differences aside when it is time to play ball. While only basing on assumptions and my own experience, I would imagine that part of the reason blacks and whites started to integrated and tolerate one another, coming from a period where there was no toleration, was because they were bonded on a team by one common goal. They worked together, whether they liked it or not to help their team win. While I will not credit sports to be the entirety of the reason blacks and whites integrated and the start of blacks gaining equal rights and privileges, I would argue that bringing the races together in organized sport after the World War II played some role, if only on the surface level, in that process.

Suggested Readings:

Kenneth L. Shropshire, In Black and White: Race and Sports in America

David J. Laliberte, Foul Lines: Teaching Race in Jim Crow America through Baseball History