Nicolas Martin-Breteau: “I would say that the first founding episode was in 1910. At the time, Jack Johnson had just won the world heavyweight belt, and it was the first time a non-white had won it. The world heavyweight boxing champion was considered the perfect athlete. At the time, American society believed that the white, Anglo-Saxon man was the superior race. Jack Johnson’s victory was followed by racial riots across the country: blacks identified with Johnson, and whites descended on black neighborhoods to “put them back in their place.“.
Has he openly taken a stand against the place reserved for blacks in society?
N.M-B: “No, and if he had, he would surely have been hanged at the end of a rope. On the other hand, he was a very provocative figure. He deliberately chose to date white women to break the taboo of interracial sex, and indirectly break the line of racial segregation. We must not forget the context: at the time, when we were black, it was much more risky to speak out as we do today.”
When did athletes play a truly active role in the black-American cause?
N.M-B: “I would say that the one who changed everything is Mohammed Ali. He is the spiritual father of all committed black American sportsmen. He is the first to speak so openly. It should not be forgotten that he decided to change his baptism name, for Cassius Clay was, according to him, a mark of servitude to the whites. Similarly, he converted to Islam at least in part because he considered Christianity to be the religion of those who thought of themselves as masters. Mohammed Ali is revolted by what was happening at the time. We must not forget that he is an Olympic champion and that we refuse to serve him coffees. In addition, he had the weapon of language, which he handled to perfection. He was a talented speaker, a charismatic figure, whites were afraid of him, and he used it to engage and become, alongside Malcolm X, a figure in the black struggle against racial segregation.”
Did he use his image as a sportsman?
N.M-B: Of course. Mohammed Ali was a masculinist figure. He had this image of a monster walking on his opponents, which dominates them outrageously. He frightened conservative whites who saw him as a threat. Along with musicians such as Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, Mohammed Ali was the only known black figure of whites. In the 40s and 50s, it was Sugar Ray Robinson, another boxer, who was in that position. Being known by whites, and being feared by some of them, played a big part in the strength of Mohammed Ali’s commitment. I could not say whether his fight was effective in the immediate future, but in the short and medium term, he became a heroic figure for the black-American community.”
Do the athletes who speak today join this line of athletes who use their popular aura to carry a message?
N.M-B: “It is difficult to compare eras. The 1960s and 1970s were followed by a counter-revolutionary period, when American society was much less receptive to progressive discourse. Under Ronald Reagan, there was a neo-conservative wave that made it very difficult for athletes to speak out. Michael Jordan has been widely criticized for his political absence; but it is necessary to understand his time was not the one we live today. The NBA was opposed at the time to the positions, the sponsors were totally against. Today, the pendulum is again moving a little further to the left. We see it in the popularity of a man like Bernie Sanders, deeply socialist. It was unimaginable a few years ago.”
In terms of image, has it become a necessity today for black-American athletes to get involved?
N.M-B: “No, it depends above all on the context and sport. The NBA, for example, has very progressive governing bodies. It’s much easier for NBA stars to speak today than for stars in the NFL, for example. Take the example of Colin Kaepernick. After his act of insubordination in 2016, he found himself ostracized by the owners of the franchises. That doesn’t take away from the courage of LeBron James, Stephen Curry or Steve Kerr, who have regularly taken a stand for black Americans. But you have to be aware of the context in which they take – or not – to speak.“
Have social networks changed the way black-American athletes engage today, compared to the champions of the past mentioned above?
N.M-B: “Yes, social networks have played a major role in recent years, as in all political mobilizations. Take Black Lives Matter. It is a movement initiated on social networks, which would not have had the same speed of diffusion or the same efficiency without it. And when you see the number of followers of a LeBron James today (46.5 million on Twitter), it’s good that athletes have a totally different way today to carry their messages.“
Is there an American particularism in the way athletes engage in politics?
N.M-B: “Black American athletes have a long history in the political field. Those who speak today would not have taken it the same way if they had not grown up with this mythical image of the gloved fist of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, for example. When you’re a sportsman and you have that behind you, it changes everything. In France, for example, apart from Lilian Thuram eventually, there are not many black athletes involved. The racial issue has always been avoided, not just in the field of sport. As if it didn’t exist. In recent years, French sportsmen who have spoken have done so in the light of the racial issue in the United States. They are very influenced by the activism of American athletes.”
Nicolas Martin-Breteau is a historian of the United States, a lecturer at the University of Lille. He is the author of Political Corps, Sport in the Struggles of Black Americans for Equality Since the 19th Century, to be published soon by EHESS.