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African-American athletes who changed the world

Robert Leveille

assistant Sports Editor

African-Americans have changed the world through their actions and works throughout U.S.  history.


February is recognized as Black History Month, designated to further education and recognize the achievements of African-Americans. Events in sports history often impact the way the world operates. African-Americans have had a large role in shaping the way our society functions today, especially with their actions in sports.




Jesse Owens

Track & Field


Jesse Owens was a four-time Olympic gold medalist in sprints and long jump. Owens participated in the 1936 Summer Olympic Games.  His four gold medals in the 1936 games made him the most successful athlete of the 1936 Olympics.


His performance on the field was thrust into the spotlight, not only because of what he accomplished, but who he accomplished it in front of. The 1936 Summer Olympic Games were hosted by Germany and held in Berlin under Adolf Hitler’s reign.


Hitler saw the Summer Olympic Games as an opportunity to put on display the resurgence of Nazi Germany. Hitler believed that the Germans would dominate every event, proving the superiority of the Aryan race.


Owens’ performance at the games single-handedly demolished Hitler’s intentions for the Olmypics. Owens went on to win the Associated Press’ Athlete of the Year in 1936. Owens was inducted as a member of the Inaugural Class in the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame that same year, and was made part of the Olympic Order for his role in the fight against racism.




Joe Louis



Joe Louis is arguably one of the greatest boxers to have ever lived. His regime as World Heavyweight Champion spanned from 1937 to 1949, the longest in the history of the sport. His 25-title defense is second to Julio Cesar Chavez.


While preparing for his shot at a title in 1936, Louis lost to Max Schmeling from Germany. Standing undefeated prior to the bout, Schmeling wasn’t viewed as a threat to Louis. Handing Louis his first loss, Schmeling would go on to become a national hero in Nazi-Germany.


Louis would go on to claim the World Heavyweight title, intensifying Schmeling’s “hero” status in Nazi-Germany for being the only man to hand Louis a loss. In a title defense and rematch against Schmeling, Louis fought what has been viewed as the most famous boxing match of the 20th century. It took just two minutes and four seconds for Louis to end the match.


Louis fought in charity bouts in front of service members to raise funds for the war effort leading up to World War II. His experiences with the Army inspired him to enlist. Though he did not deploy to Europe and see combat, Louis’ service assisted the war effort in recruitment amongst the African-American community.


Louis went on to use his platform to fight against civil rights issues in the armed forces, including the advancement of the officer candidate applications for African-Americans.


One notable officer candidate application Louis was successful in advancing was that of Jackie Robinson, who would later go on to change the world himself.




Jackie Robinson



Jackie Robinson was the first African-American to play in the MLB. His career was relatively short, only lasting 10 years; but, he was nothing short of exceptional.


Robinson was awarded the first ever Rookie of the Year award, and was a six-time All-Star. He played in five World Series Championships, winning one with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1955, and was named the National League MVP in 1949.


He played a large role in the Civil Rights Movement. His high character, education, service and talent challenged the perception of African-Americans that supported policies of segregation.


Robinson credited his calm and non-violent approach toward civil rights to his experience in dealing with racism in the Army. Being a commissioned officer prevented him from deploying to Europe due to allegations of misconduct. Later, Robinson was acquitted of all charges and finished out his service as an athletics coach for the Army. While coaching in the Army, Robinson met a fellow soldier who played for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues.


Robinson’s jersey number is the only to ever be retired by the MLB, and April 15 is recognized as “Jackie Robinson Day” throughout the league. His contribution to the civil rights movement became instrumental.




Arthur Ashe



Arthur Ashe was a two-time world ranked tennis player. He was the first African-American to be named to the U.S. Davis Cup team, and the only black man to win at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the Australian Open.


Although an exceptional athlete, Ashe created a long-standing impact on the world off the court, too.


In 1979, Ashe suffered a heart attack. His age and athletic lifestyle shed light on the hereditary aspect to heart disease. His health cut short his career, forcing him to retire in 1980. Ashe went on to be an advocate for health issues in America and civil rights abroad.


In 1992, Ashe went public with news that he had contracted HIV via blood transfusion during heart bypass surgery in the early 1980s. During this time, HIV and the AIDS virus were surrounded by many negative misconceptions and stigmas.


Ashe formed the Arthur Ashe Foundation with the intent to defeat AIDS. He focused on educating the public on HIV and AIDS. Ashe advocated for funding of research and awareness of the epidemic, including combating the misconceptions that surround the disease.


Shortly prior to his death in 1993, he formed the Arthur Ashe Institute of Urban Health to address issues involving inadequate healthcare practices.


Ashe was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Arthur Ashe for Courage Award would be given in his honor to an athlete who displayed courage in the face of adversity.




Wilma Rudolph

Track & Field


Wilma Rudolph was a sprinter on the 1956 and 1960 U.S. Olympic Track and Field teams. Her three gold medals in the 1960 Olympics were the most won by an American woman at the time in any Olympic Games competition.


Rudolph’s poor health history highlighted issues regarding the healthcare of African-Americans in America. She was born premature, only weighing four and a half pounds at birth. Rudolph developed Infantile Paralysis at the age of four from the Poliovirus.


Throughout her early childhood, Rudolph fought through bouts of Polio and Scarlet Fever. At the age of 13, Rudolph had successfully beaten Polio, and by 16 she went on to win a bronze medal in the 1956 Olympic Games.


The 1960 Olympic Games were the first to receive wide international television coverage.


Rudolph’s story, along with her success in the arena, elevated woman’s track and field in America and empowered women around the globe.


We celebrate Black History Month– to remember all those who made drastic impacts on the lives of so many, both on and off the playing fields.

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