Lost amid the outrage over the Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s racist ruminations is the re-emergence, however brief or tentative, of Black athletic courage—well, at least, a slight resurrection of the activist spirit of the 1960s. And it’s a perfect time to reflect on where that spirit came from and why it’s so rare now. 

There was a time when Black athletes, such as Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson, were powerful symbols of democratic struggle and social change. Sprinter Owens ran into the history books with four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Nazi leader Adolf Hitler’s Berlin. Owens’ triumph served a dual—and paradoxical—function: It embodied American ideals and served as a rebuke to an American society that failed to apply those ideals to Black citizens. Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947 and sparked a broader debate about the social standing of Black folk.

Heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis had an even bigger impact on Black America: Every time he bested a White man in the ring in the 1930s and ’40s, he also pummeled myths of our inferiority.

In the ’60s and ’70s, the disposition of Black folk and the athletes they embraced changed dramatically, forging an explicit link between politics and sports. As our struggles for freedom heated up, sports were electrified as well.

Read more in the July 2014 issue of EBONY Magazine.