Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library

Globetrotting: African American Athletes and Cold War Politics

Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 264
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    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_

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09429-3
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    In 1959 the United States State Department asked the six-foot-ten African American professional basketball player Bill Russell to take a goodwill tour of Libya, Liberia, the Ivory Coast, Sudan, and Ethiopia. Russell was an intriguing choice for a goodwill ambassadorship because he had a self-acknowledged reputation for being grouchy, opinionated, and ungrateful to the White Establishment. Described as one of the “most cantankerous figures ever to have walked across the American sports page,” Russell did not try to curry favor with the public, especially if that meant being silent on racial abuses.¹

    Russell’s “grouchiness” was sparked immediately upon his arrival...

  5. 1. The Showcase African American: Paul Robeson, Jackie Robinson, and the Politics of Cold War Prosperity and Repression
    (pp. 13-40)

    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 thePittsburgh 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...

  6. 2. “Spreading the Gospel of Basketball”: The Harlem Globetrotters, the State Department, and the Minstrel Tradition, 1945–54
    (pp. 41-74)

    James Michener, the noted Pulitzer Prize–winning author, was an acclaimed writer whose work reflected his conviction that writers should commit themselves to addressing social issues because they were the “conscience” of the nation. To that end, in his 1975 nonfiction workSports in America,Michener revealed how a Harlem Globetrotters game forced him to reconsider his long-standing support for the notion that African American success in sports alleviated racial inequality. Michener began the chapter “Sports and Upward Escalation” by acknowledging that he had been taught and readily accepted the argument that sports were “the salvation of the black race...

  7. 3. Playing Politics: The Formation of the U.S. Cold War–Era Athletic Foreign Policy
    (pp. 75-102)

    With two of its best players sidelined with injuries, the team representing the United States lost to the Soviet Union—62 to 37—on January 28 before twenty-four thousand fans at the 1959 World Basketball Tournament in Santiago, Chile. After five minutes of play, the score was tied, 4–4. Then the Soviets gained control after inserting Yan Krumins, their seven-foot-two center from Latvia. His five quick points helped his team to a 25–14 halftime advantage. The Soviets capitalized on precise outside shooting and American foul trouble during the second half to cruise to an easy victory. The Soviet...

  8. 4. “The Good Negroes”: Propaganda and the Racial Crisis
    (pp. 103-132)

    In 1956 the State Department sent the University of San Francisco Dons men’s basketball team on a summertime tour of Latin America. At the time of the tour, the Dons had won fifty-five consecutive games and had amassed an incredible 57–1 record on the way to back-to-back NCAA championships. The team was led by their All-American center, Bill Russell, a six-foot-ten African American, whose shot-blocking and defensive skills were the cornerstone of the team’s domination. At the time, conventional wisdom held that defense was a time to rest until your team had the ball again, so most players did...

  9. 5. Black Power: International Politics and the Revolt of the Black Athlete
    (pp. 133-166)

    There were several unsuccessful proposed efforts to organize African American athletes to boycott the Olympic Games because of the persistence of racial discrimination. The outspoken African American activist Dick Gregory in 1963 unsuccessfully proposed a boycott of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. A year later, the idea was resurrected. However, the new proposal came from an unlikely source: Mal Whitfield, the conservative Republican and former Olympic track champion. Whitfield had repeatedly toured internationally as a goodwill ambassador who embodied the State Department’s emphasis on racial progress. At the time of his suggestion, Whitfield was employed as a health and athletic adviser...

  10. Epilogue
    (pp. 167-170)

    The use of sport as a tool of U.S. foreign policy did not end after the Mexico City Olympic protests. The United States as well as other global powers continued to utilize sport as a means to solidify friendships, antagonize rivals, and advance claims about the viability of their political, social, and economic systems. Two of the most widely used tactics to express displeasure with other nations were boycotts and the denial of visas for potential competitors. Conversely, sport continued to be viewed as a means to initiate and foster positive relationships. In this regard, some of the most widely...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 171-190)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 191-200)
  13. Index
    (pp. 201-210)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 211-221)