As Black History Month progresses, appreciating the contributions and change-making of Black people in all aspects of our society must be a priority. Black History Month gives people the opportunity to reflect on American history through a different lens and fully acknowledge how Black people have shaped America’s present.
In the sports world, there has been an uncountable number of barrier-breaking and inspiring Black athletes, and looking at the stories of a few is one great way to appreciate the many. Some have passed away, and others are in the thick of their career, but nevertheless, each and everyone of these influential athletes have made a significant impact on their sport and the world.
Although Jackie Robinson is likely the most-well known Black baseball player of all time, Larry Doby, the second Black player to break baseball’s color line, endured similar struggles with much less media support and attention. Doby was the first Black player in the American League after he signed with the Cleveland Indians, and he continued on to have a major-league career lasting over 13 years. After years of disregard, Doby was eventually elected into the National Baseball Hall of Fame on March 3, 1998, and was quoted in a Jet Magazine article saying, “This is just a tremendous feeling. It’s kind of like a bale of cotton has been on your shoulders, and now it’s off.”
Althea Gibson, the first Black athlete to compete in international tennis, as well as the first African American to win a Grand Slam, was a revolutionary, and her accomplishments paved the path for many athletes to come. Her career included eleven Grand Slam wins, including six single’s titles, and spanned around eight years, after which she became the first African American woman to join the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) tour. She was denied entry to many tournaments simply because of her race, and her accomplishments were made all the more impressive by the racism she constantly faced. After Gibson’s wins, 43 years passed until another African American female tennis player, Serena Williams, won the US Open.
Bill Russell, a former center for the Boston Celtics who is considered by many to be one of the top National Basketball Association (NBA) players of all time, helped the Celtics to win 11 championships in 13 seasons, and later became the first Black coach in the NBA and the first to win a championship.
Throughout his career, Russell experienced much racial prejudice and became an active advocator for the Black Power movement, as well as a supporter of Muhammad Ali’s decision to refuse to be drafted for the Vietnam War. In an article in Slam Magazine, Russell wrote, “Racism cannot just be shaken out of the fabric of society because, like dust from a rug, it dissipates into the air for a bit and then settles right back where it was, growing thicker with time. We need to dismantle broken systems and start over. We need to make our voices heard, through multiple organizations, using many different tactics. We need to demand that America gets a new rug.”
Today, there is luckily much more representation within the sports world, but there is still progress to be made. Donte Searcy, a senior on the Berkeley High School (BHS) football team in Communications Arts and Sciences (CAS), reflected on his experience as an athlete of color. Searcy said, “As a Black athlete, I’m gonna try to set the best example for young Black kids and do the best I can. You gotta set an example for the people that are coming up, for young people. Try to get everybody off the streets to be right.”
Doby, Gibson, and Russell are only a few examples of inspiring Black athletes, and recognizing their contributions is simply one step forward towards a more just and educated society. Searcy remarked, “I don’t think Black History Month is really fair. They give us one month, but things happen every day.”
As Searcy pointed out, the importance of Black history in America should extend far beyond one month. Rather, we should be recognizing and appreciating the impact of Black people every month, and February should be used as an opportunity to be inspired to grow, as well as expand people’s perspective to include the hardships and successes of Black Americans.