Jackie Robinson's Faith and Activism
The legendary baseball player, and other African American athletes of the past, wore their Christianity and political views on their sleeves.
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There was a time when some of the country's leading African American athletic figures, religious or otherwise, spoke out for racial justice and addressed the pressing social justice issues of the day. One of the most enduring images of "the black athlete" remains the photograph from the climactic moment of the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City in which African American track stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos stand on the victory dais in their USA uniforms, each raising one black-gloved hand with his fingers clenched in a first—the symbol of black power. The gesture, as historian Amy Bass writes, was threatening and upsetting to much of America, and it earned Smith and Carlos the harsh criticism of U.S. Olympic officials and many members of the public.
Smith and Carlos were not associated with religiosity. But a survey of the social and athletic landscape of that era does find high-profile Christian black athletic figures involved in progressive political causes, including two of the leading luminaries of that time—Gale Sayers, and Jackie Robinson, the African American who broke the major league baseball color barrier.
Gale Sayers describes his faith, his social conscience, and his first forays into activism in his landmark autobiography "I Am Third." (The book's title speaks to the important role of religion in Sayers' life. As he explained its meaning, God was first, his family second, and "I am third.") Sayers, who began attending an Episcopal church during his collegiate career in Lawrence, Kansas, formed a friendship with the young Jesse Jackson in the late 1960s and began paying closer attention to race issues. Prompting some in football to label him a troublemaker or "militant," Sayers lent his visibility and voice to some of Jackson's causes. He helped promote Jackson's Operation Breadbasket and picketed with Jackson and his group at a supermarket located in a black neighborhood, protesting its discriminatory hiring and pricing practices. Also, Sayers became cochair of the Sports Committee of a legal defense fund for the NAACP and was appointed a Chicago parks commissioner, a position he used to advocate for equal contract-bidding opportunities for black contractors and construction workers.
The story of Christian faith and political activism is even more dramatic with Jackie Robinson. From his upbringing by a fervently devout mother in California, to his pact with the thoroughly religious Brooklyn Dodgers general manager who signed him to play in the major leagues, to his post-baseball career in business and activism, faith played a central role in Jackie Robinson's life.