Athletes for Social Change

Explore

In the aftermath of the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, the sports world responded with calls for social transformation.

The Washington Mystics each wear white T-shirts with seven bullets on the back protesting the shooting of Jacob Blake by Kenosha, Wisconsin police

After the WNBA announcement of the postponed games for the evening, the Washington Mystics each wear white T-shirts with seven bullets on the back protesting the shooting of Jacob Blake by Kenosha, Wisconsin police at Feld Entertainment Center on August 26, 2020 in Palmetto, Florida.

Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

When the Milwaukee Bucks made the surprising decision not to go onto the floor for an NBA playoff game, it started a chain reaction throughout sports. Rather than forfeiting the game, the NBA decided to postpone scheduled games for the next three nights. The WNBA postponed action for two days. Postponements followed in baseball, soccer, hockey and tennis. Perhaps, Los Angeles Sparks forward and players union president Nneka Ogwumike offered the best way to understand the halt in action from the players' perspective: she labeled it a “moment of reflection.” This moment served as a time for players to grieve, plan, and recommit themselves to the fight.

Sport Vol. 29 No. 3, Special Issue — The Negro In American Sport

Sport Vol. 29 No. 3, Special Issue — The Negro In American Sport, features cover images of Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Wilt Chamberlain, and Althea Gibson.

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Donald Felder and family, © The Sport Gallery

There is a long history of athletes fighting for social change. While some sports fans have a hard time understanding why athletes are socially engaged, many athletes understand that their participation in sports is inextricably linked to a history of struggle. They understand that their opportunities exist because someone else sacrificed. Sometimes the individuals who paved the way were other athletes like Bill Russell and Jackie Robinson who were major voices in the Civil Rights Movement.  However, most of the sacrifices were by those nameless faces who braved water hoses, police dogs, arson, and intimidation while fighting for the right to vote, move into the neighborhood of their choice, and to send their kids to quality schools.

The Revolt of the Black Athlete, by Harry Edwards

The Revolt of the Black Athlete, 1970
Written by Dr. Harry Edwards

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

At their best, athletes are able to amplify the voices of the unheard. When Wilma Rudolph refused to attend a segregated banquet in her honor after winning three gold medals at the Olympics, she used her platform to speak for the African Americans citizens of Clarksville, Tennessee. When Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their gloved fists before an international audience, they were joining those who mourned the death of Martin Luther King Jr., and the nation's wavering commitment to civil and human rights.  When Muhammad Ali took the bold stand against the Vietnam War, he was speaking for the young, poor African American men, who disproportionately served on the front lines.

Souvenir program for Wilma Rudolph Day

A souvenir program celebrating Wilma Rudolph Day in Clarksville, Tennessee on October 4, 1960 commemorating her achievements in the 1960 Summer Olympics.

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of the Rudolph Family in memory of Wilma Rudolph

I hate when random people say athletes shouldn’t get involved with politics and just entertain. Firstly, this is a human rights issue. Secondly, what gives you more right to speak than me?

Naomi Osaka

Explore the Collection

Discover Objects Related to Athletes and Social Justice From Our Collection
T-shirt with "I Can't Breathe" worn and signed by Derrick Rose, 2014

"I Can't Breathe" T-Shirt Worn by Derrick Rose, 2014

View Object
St. Louis Cardinals Jersey Worn by Curt Flood, 1966

St. Louis Cardinals Jersey Worn by Curt Flood, 1966

View Object
Football jersey signed by Colin Kaepernick, 2014

Football Jersey Signed by Colin Kaepernick, 2014

View Object
Training Robe Worn by Muhammad Ali, 1964

Training Robe Worn by Muhammad Ali, 1964

View Object
 LeBron James "Equality" Game-Worn Basketball Shoes, 2017

LeBron James "Equality" Basketball Shoes, 2017

View Object

The right of every American to first-class citizenship is the most important issue of our time.

Jackie Robinson

A Commitment to Social Justice

The National Museum of African American History and Culture is committed to social justice. As such, we are committed to preserving, sharing, and highlighting the protests of former and current athletes to help understand how protest and social engagement in sports have and continue to be shaped by the actions of ordinary Americans as well as how athletes' statements and actions continue to inspire.