Tuesday, January 18, 2011 10:39 a.m.
By Ron ThompsonCSNwashington.com
Last Christmas and New Years Eve weekend found me unwrapping gift books on notable African-American athletes who left historic footprints on their sports. Those pages feature twentieth-century icons from famed runner James Cleveland Jesse Owens to fellow Olympians Rafer Johnson, John Carlos, and Tommie Smith. Baseball legends Jackie Robinson and Frank Robinson are noted too, as are Althea Gibson and Debbi Thomas. Against a weekend marking the birthday and holiday observation of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., this space will spotlight other names in those pages, and part of what this holiday weekend means to me.
Having grown up in an environment where stories about Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell were regularly shared from primary sources, I view most sports icons with more respect than reverence. But as a student of history, my interest in and respect for those true pioneers in athletics will never cease. My collections on sports thumbed last holiday date back to the early 1900s, introducing boxer Jack Johnson, an African-American whose white-hot jabs ignited controversy among the largely Caucasian spectators. Johnsons place in history is credited to his famed success in the ring and the scalding outrage over his dating habits, capped by his prosecution under the Mann Act of 1910, which barred the transport of white women across state lines for immoral purposes. Johnsons winning record and profile ultimately became casualties of bad press, several highly-publicized losses, and the virulent racism of that era. But despite that, he was unforgivable in his representation of Africas successful descendants in America. His colorful lifestyle and behavior made him one of the nations first celebrity athletes. For years he ruled a sport that was considered an emblem of American manhood, one that would later count Joe Louis Barrow, Cassius Clay, and Mike Tyson among its sons. In many ways, Jack Johnson was a true founding father.
Ferdinand Lewis Lew Alcindor, Jr., a native of New York City, later became one of the brightest lights in Los Angeles and, for awhile, the wider world of basketball. Alcindor was born two years after American, German, and Japanese signatures officially closed World War II, but his life has been a study in battles fought and won against a variety of opponents. He grew from a gangly kid on a basketball team in Harlem, into a scoring- and shot blocking colossus at UCLA, then an even greater threat in the NBA. His roiling intellect, ocean-deep curiosity, and quiet discipline moved him to embrace Islam and become one of its most prominent faces. Jabbar retired as a multiple champion, a scoring leader, and an ambassador of the sport. Yet his contribution to African-American history is matched by him being a chronicler of it. Jabbar is a tireless author, having published more than a half-dozen books focusing on his playing career, American Indians, and a black Army battalion that distinguished itself in Europe a few years before his birth. His publications also include On the Shoulders of Giants, a survey on the Harlem Renaissance, which is matched by a vast art collection that Jabbar showcased years ago at Harlems Schomburg Center of the New York Public Library system. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is a renaissance man whose time on court and talents beyond it represent the immeasurable diversity of our nation, and African-American culture in particular.
From a rectangular hardwood court to one of grass, Arthur Ashe, Jr., of Richmond, Virginia, would represent both triumph and tragedy as one of that centurys more promising talents. Ashe rose from a modest southern background marked by racist Jim Crow segregation laws, and later became a Wimbledon champion whose court dominance was rivaled by his social and political activism. As a top-tier athlete, he assumed an unprecedented role at a time when sports figures werent even considered marketing devices. He spoke out against South Africas apartheid system, joining childhood friend and TransAfrica founder Randall Robinson in critiques of a government that was then an economic ally of the U.S. Ashe also stressed the vital importance of higher education over professional sports for African-Americans, noting in a 60 Minutes interview the futility of such a high percentage among them aiming for painfully few vacancies. But Arthur Ashes footprint may be most noteworthy for his last, greatest challenge than those faced at the start and midpoint of his career. He received a blood transfusion contaminated with HIV during heart surgery in the early 1980s. It took his life nearly a decade later, but his advocacy for awareness, prevention, and treatment took on a degree of importance comparable to his interest in university training for African-Americans, and taking a sledgehammer to apartheid on the Dark Continent. Despite the choking grip of his illness, Ashes last efforts were spent trying to maintain political pressure with Robinson on U.S. policy toward Haiti and its refugees. Weve got to keep the pressure on Haiti, he told Reverend Jesse Jackson, who eulogized the activistathlete. In a phrase made famous at the passing of Abraham Lincoln, Rev. Jackson closed his eulogy that Ashe now belongs to the Ages. To me, he also belongs in that memorial for great Americans whose work remains an enduring, admirable legacy.
Jack Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Arthur Ashe are just one African-American trio from the thousands of names that have contributed to its culture and this nation. That larger percentage has been just as influential as they, and the man honored this weekend. But like those whose knowledge of Martin Luther King, Jr., is generally and sadly limited to one speech given during the 1963 March on Washington, instead of the anti-war speech given one year before his assassination, a deeper study will bring more extraordinary insight. To me, the holiday honoring Dr. King is both a cause for celebration and a call for reflection, on the course of this nation and those who helped pave that path. This weekend we remember one man whose life was a study of mental and emotional strength in the face of brutal challenges, from his marches through the unyielding racism that defined the southern U.S., to his challenges against a war in Southeast Asia, and, ultimately, sanitation workers striking for better pay. He and others mentioned here are, to paraphrase Kareems book-title, the giants on whose shoulders we proudly stand today.