10 Black Athletes Who Changed the World

10 Black Athletes Who Changed the World

Larry Holzwarth - March 4, 2018

Sports and athletic activities have always been a large part of American life. The early colonists played at rounders, bowled, raced horses, raced each other in footraces, wrestled, and competed in many other ways. From private games arose organized competitions between individuals. Team sports grew to include competition between cities and towns, and organized leagues began to emerge. Barnstorming teams in several sports traveled between towns to take part in games between themselves and locally organized opponents. In the industrial age many factories and other industries had their own leagues in football and baseball, boxing events featuring their employees, and other organized sports.

Schools made sports a sanctioned extracurricular activity and competed against one another. Professional sports leagues developed and gradually tiers of leagues based on the level of play were operated by governing bodies in accordance with their owners’ whims. One of those whims was segregation. At every level, amateur and professional, sports in America was segregated. Competition between blacks and whites was frowned on in nearly all sports (boxing was an exception) and segregation, sometimes informal in structure and sometimes through bylaws was the rule well into the twentieth century. It was slowly broken down, but it was a lengthy process, and for those that pioneered the desegregation of sports an often painful one.

10 Black Athletes Who Changed the World
Sports were restricted and segregated as were nearly all aspects of life in many places in the United States. Wikimedia

Here are ten athletes who changed the world of sports for the better for those that followed them.

10 Black Athletes Who Changed the World
John Baxter Taylor was the first African American on the United States Olympic Team. University of Pennsylvania Archives

John Taylor

Many famous black athletes have represented their country in the Olympics, including Muhammad Ali (as Cassius Clay), Jesse Owens, Florence Griffith-Joyner, Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony and the list goes on and on. The first to do so is unremembered by most. His name was John Taylor. He was a young track star who was the fastest high school runner of the quarter mile in the United States. Born the son of former slaves in 1888, Taylor was trained as a veterinarian, and was a member of Sigma Pi Phi, the first black fraternity in the United States.

Taylor was born in Washington DC and grew up there and in Philadelphia, where he went to public elementary schools before enrolling in Central High School. Philadelphia’s public schools were desegregated, as were their athletic teams. Taylor went out for the Central High track and field team, running track, the only African American to make the team. He specialized in the quarter mile and the in the relay. Upon graduation from Central High he enrolled in Philadelphia’s Brown Preparatory School, attending classes there one year, and running track.

Taylor enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania, attending the Wharton School of Finance, in the fall of 1903. The following spring he joined the varsity track team. That May Taylor broke the intercollegiate record for the 440 yard run with a time of 49 1/5 seconds, as recorded by the Intercollegiate Association of Amateur Athletes of America, known as the IC4A. In 2007 Taylor, then attending the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine, Taylor ran the 440 at the IC4A Championships and won with a record time of 48 4/5 seconds. Taylor graduated In June 1908 and the following month went to London as a member of the United States Olympic Team.

The first black athlete to represent the United States in international competition, Taylor competed in the 400 meter relay, running the third leg, and the 1600 meter medley relay, where the runners ran legs of differing lengths. Taylor ran the third leg, a distance of 400 meters. The American team was involved in a foul in the 400 meter relay, and the rules of the time required the race to be rerun, with the runner who had committed the foul removed from the team. The Americans refused to rerun the race, in effect forfeiting the race. In the 1600 meter relay the Americans won and Taylor became the first African American to win an Olympic Gold Medal.

Taylor won, in addition to his Olympic Gold Medal, forty-five cups and trophies and 70 medals during his track career, though fate did not grant him much time to enjoy them. Preparing to establish himself as a veterinarian in Philadelphia he contracted typhoid fever in the autumn of 1908, dying of the disease in December at the age of only 26. He was buried in Philadelphia.

10 Black Athletes Who Changed the World
Larry Doby was the second African American to enter the Major Leagues and the first in the American League. Baseball Hall of Fame

Larry Doby

In every Major League ballpark the number 42 is displayed prominently, the only player’s number to have been permanently retired by Major League Baseball. Forty-two was the number worn by Jackie Robinson, famous for his skills as a player but more notably as the first African American to play Major League baseball. In fact there were several black athletes who played at baseball’s highest level before segregation took hold in the late nineteenth century. Moses Fleetwood Walker is an example. Nor was Jackie Robinson the first to be recruited to play in the majors when the color line was finally broken for good in the 1940s. That honor belongs to Larry Doby.

In 1942 the owner of the Cleveland Indians, Bill Veeck, having been scouting the Negro Leagues for appropriate talent, proposed integrating the major leagues. The Commissioner of Baseball, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, turned him down. Veeck had been keeping an eye on Negro League star Larry Doby with an intent to bring him directly to the Major Leagues but by then World War II intervened, and Doby was serving in the United States Navy. Veeck met with him while Doby was stationed at Great Lakes Naval Training Center during the war. Doby later saw service in the Pacific and was discharged in 1946.

Following Doby’s release from the Navy he returned to his interrupted baseball career, playing first with the San Juan Senators before rejoining the Newark Eagles, the Negro League team for which he had played before his naval service. In 1947, Veeck purchased his contract with the Eagles and sent one of his assistants to escort Doby to Chicago, where the Indians were playing a series with the Chicago White Sox. Jackie Robinson had already entered the National League, and the negative reaction of many fans and players was well known.

Doby was not allowed to stay in the same hotel as his teammates, a situation he would face many times in his career. Veeck hired security guards to escort him to and from the ballpark. When he was introduced to his new teammates, many refused to shake his hand, some even turned their backs. He had difficulty finding someone with whom to play catch to warm up. Later and throughout a large part of his career he was refused service in restaurants and in spring training had to stay at a private home as a boarder, denied entry into the Indians’ hotel.

Robinson endured the same things, but Robinson was first and as such, drew the attention of the media, especially the sportswriters, who reported on his struggles and gained for him the support of many. Doby was second, soon one of many, and the same obstacles for which Jackie Robinson is honored for overcoming Doby overcame in near anonymity. Doby later managed in the Major Leagues (second again to the first black manager Frank Robinson) and was elected to the Hall of Fame. Larry Doby, who once endured an opponent spitting tobacco juice on him as he slid into second base told a reporter, “…I prefer to remember… the good guys. There’s no point talking about the others.”

10 Black Athletes Who Changed the World
Earl Lloyd towers over a reception line. Lloyd was the first African American to play in the NBA due to a scheduling quirk. USMC

Earl Lloyd

As hard as it is to believe today, when the National Basketball Association was founded in 1946 it was an all-white league, by choice of the founding owners. Its first season of play was 1946-47. The following season the first non-white player emerged, an Asian-American of Japanese descent who appeared in three games for the New York Knicks. Not until 1950 was a black player drafted by an NBA team, Chuck Cooper, picked in the second round by the Boston Celtics. The first African American to sign an NBA contract was Harold Hunter, but he was cut during training camp and never played in the NBA.

At the start of the 1950-51 NBA season, Earl Lloyd became the first black player to appear in an NBA game, mainly because the opening game for his team, the Washington Capitols, preceded the opening games of the other two teams with black players, the Boston Celtics and the New York Knicks. Thus Lloyd joined Nat Clifton and Chuck Cooper as the first black players in the NBA, with Lloyd holding the distinction of appearing in a game first, on Halloween Night, October 31, 1950.

Earl Lloyd was born and raised in Alexandria, Virginia, a city which was largely segregated. He attended all-black schools and endured the “separate but equal” attitude which was prevalent in the South, such as drinking fountains and restrooms labeled “colored only” or “white only”. He learned to remain in the areas of the city which more welcoming than the all-white neighborhoods, where his race and his size made him conspicuous. After graduating from segregated Parker-Gray High School he was awarded a scholarship to play for West Virginia State University.

At West Virginia State Lloyd was an All-Conference Player three times, and All-American Player twice, and played on the 1947-48 team, the only undefeated team in the country that season. After college he played for the Washington Capitols, the Syracuse Nationals after the Capitols went bankrupt and folded in 1951, and finally the Detroit Pistons. His NBA career was interrupted by service with the US Army during the Korean War, and he spent a tour of duty at the front in Korea. Upon his return he resumed his career with Syracuse.

During his NBA career Lloyd endured the racism displayed by some players and fans, and the segregated facilities which were present in many cities. Often he could not dine with teammates or use the same facilities. Racial slurs were tossed at him by many fans, and other forms of harassment were a constant reminder that many considered him to be a transgressor on white privilege. Within the NBA itself, players did not present the same level of racial hostility as they did in other sports, particularly baseball, where many players were from the Jim Crow south. Still Lloyd and his colleagues paved the way for what the NBA is today.

10 Black Athletes Who Changed the World
Jesse Owens competing in the Long Jump during the Berlin Olympics in 1936. Bundesarchiv

Jesse Owens

Jesse Owens is well remembered as the American track star who singlehandedly foiled Adolf Hitler’s plan to use the 1936 Olympic Games to demonstrate Aryan supremacy to the rest of the world. This belief is not strictly true. Owens won more Gold medals than any other individual athlete, but the German Olympic team did earn the most medals overall – 89 – than any other nation, the United States being second with 56. Nor did Hitler publicly display his disdain for Owens, refusing to acknowledge the athlete or shake his hand, as is usually claimed.

Owens nearly didn’t go to the Berlin Olympics, persuaded by NAACP and AAU officials that doing so would be tacit acceptance of the racist regime in Germany. It took the American Olympic Committee’s finding that boycotting the Olympic Games was un-American, driven by agitators, before Owens and other black athletes, including Mack Robinson, brother of Jackie Robinson, agreed to compete (Robinson would win a Silver Medal running second to Owens in the 200 meter sprint). The American team, including the black athletes, were received enthusiastically when they arrived in Berlin, with Owens receiving adulation from fans and competing athletes.

Despite the fame achieved by Owens through his domination of the events in which he competed, he was not personally congratulated by Hitler as some other track and field athletes were. When the press reported Hitler’s behavior as a snub of the Americans in general and Owens in particular, the athlete defended Hitler in the press. He stated that a scheduling mix-up required Hitler’s departure from the stadium before having an opportunity to meet him. Owens claimed that Hitler had waved to him in salute, and that he waved back in acknowledgment.

After returning to the United States Owens expanded on the events in Berlin, stating that he was treated better by the Nazi leadership in Berlin than he was by the American leadership in Washington. Owens claimed that he was never invited to the White House and did not receive a congratulatory telegram from the president. Owens was feted with a ticker tape parade in New York upon his return to the United States, after which there was a reception held in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Despite being the guest of honor, Owens had to enter the hotel from the back and use the freight elevator, in accordance with restrictions regarding blacks in place at the hotel at the time.

Fame notwithstanding, Owens found it difficult to find lasting work in his home country following the Olympics. In 1942 he was hired by a former competitor to work at Ford, and remained with the company for a few years before getting involved with a new Negro League as a part-owner of a team. To supplement his income he often staged races against horses; these were usually rigged by startling the horse at the start, causing it to shy away. Owens died of lung cancer in 1980. Often presented as proof of the falsehood of the Nazi claim of Aryan supremacy, his achievements did little to help him cope with the American racial attitudes which prevailed through most of his life.

10 Black Athletes Who Changed the World
Althea Gibson crashed through the color barrier in Women’s Tennis, and did it with grace and dignity. Wikimedia

Althea Gibson

Althea Gibson was the first African American to play international professional tennis, the first black player from any nation, for that matter. Born in South Carolina in 1927, the depression soon caused her family to relocate to Harlem in New York City, where her father found work. Althea learned to play paddle tennis and by the age of 12 she was one of the best female paddle tennis players in New York, demonstrating her proficiency by winning several informal matches and tournaments. In 1941 jazz musician Buddy Walker bought her the first stringed racket she ever owned, she began to develop her tennis skills.

She rapidly improved as a tennis player, winning several state championships sanctioned by the American Tennis Association. In 1947 she attracted the attention of Dr. Walter Johnson of Lynchburg, Virginia, who provided the means for her to receive better instruction and helped her enter more prestigious tournaments. Still, she was denied entry to many tournaments which would have helped her career because of them being held in white only clubs. This inability to earn the points acquired through playing in sanctioned events denied her entry into the United States National Championships, the precursor to the US Open Tennis Championships.

In 1949 Gibson entered Florida A & M under a full scholarship. While there a letter campaign conducted by her supporters directly to the USTA and to magazines and newspapers pressured for changes in the way athletes were considered for the US Nationals. In 1950 she was given an invitation to compete in the Nationals at Forest Hills. She lost in the second round to the reigning Wimbledon champion in a three set match. She was the first black athlete to appear at Flushing Meadows, the first to appear in international tennis competition, and she received massive media coverage around the world.

She was soon winning consistently, despite having to compete not only with her opponents, but also with the racial prejudices and Jim Crow laws which were gradually yielding to efforts to eradicate them. In 1956 she became the first African American to win the French Open Women’s Singles Championship, making her also the first to win a Grand Slam event. The following July she became the first black player to win a Wimbledon Championship. Her trophy was presented to her by Queen Elizabeth II. She described the event as being “…a long way from being forced to sit in the colored section of the bus.”

Gibson eventually won 56 national and international titles in singles and doubles, all of them as an amateur. She became a professional in 1958, but there was little money to be made in endorsements at the time, and tournaments carried no prize money. In 1964 she became a member of the Ladies Professional Golf Association, their first African American player. She found that the racial barriers which she had helped break down in tennis were still thriving among the country clubs where golf tournaments were played, especially in the South. Today Althea Gibson, who died in 2003, is honored nationally and internationally for her achievements in athletics and racial equality.

10 Black Athletes Who Changed the World
Wilma Rudolph’s track career was a short one, but it made her an international heroine. New York Public Library

Wilma Rudolph

Wilma Rudolph’s courage and determination were evident in her early childhood, when she contracted polio. Recovering from the onset of the illness, she continued to wear a brace on her left leg until she was eight years old. She also required the use of an orthopedic shoe but by the age of twelve she had discarded both supports and was walking normally. In high school Wilma competed in basketball and track. She was spotted by Tennessee State University’s track and field coach, Ed Temple, while she was playing in a basketball game. He invited her to attend his summer training camp at Tennessee State and the 14 year old Rudolph was soon competing with athletes much older and stronger than she.

In 1956 Rudolph competed in the US Olympic trials and won the right to compete in the 1956 Olympic Games in the 200 meter race. She was sixteen, the youngest member of the United States Olympic team. In the Olympics she lost in a preliminary race, but ran the third leg of the 4 person 100 meter relay, in which the Americans won the Bronze. In 1958 she enrolled at Tennessee State, determined to return to the Olympics on the 1960 United States team. In the interim she competed in AAU events and for Tennessee State, and at the 1960 Olympic trials set a new world record for the 200 meters.

In the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome she won Gold for the 100 and 200 meters, setting a world record time in the 100 which was not counted as such due to its being considered wind aided. She took a third Gold Medal in the 4 x 100 relay, the first American woman to win three Gold medals in a single Olympiad. The 1960 Olympics were the first to have world-wide television exposure, and Rudolph became an international star, drawing praise globally for her athleticism and poise. She continued to compete in AAU track events following her achievements, but declined the opportunity to compete in the 1964 Olympic Games.

Recognizing that she was one of the most internationally recognizable women, let alone black women, in the world Rudolph completed her education at Tennessee State before embarking on a goodwill tour through West Africa at the request of the United States Department of State. She visited several other African nations as a goodwill ambassador, including Senegal, Ghana, and Mali. In 1963 she participated in a protest in her hometown of Clarksville, Tennessee, against segregated restaurants, her high profile giving the protest wide publicity. In response, Clarksville announced full desegregation of the city’s public facilities.

Throughout the remainder of her life Rudolph worked with numerous charities and non-profits which backed programs for the development of athletic programs for American youth of all races. She worked with the Job Corps, published her autobiography, and created the Wilma Rudolph Foundation in Indianapolis to provide better training for young athletes there. She also became the hostess of a television show in Indianapolis and an on-air contributor to ABC Sports. In 1994 Rudolph was diagnosed with cancer of the throat and brain, and she died of the disease in November at the age of 54. Rudolph used her athletic talent to attain a celebrity which she dedicated to the betterment of all.

10 Black Athletes Who Changed the World
Charles Sifford faced bylaws which refused blacks into the PGA and restricted Golf Courses and Clubs. PGA

Charles Luther Sifford

In the 1940s black golfers were restricted from joining the Professional Golfers Association (PGA) which ran most of the professional tournaments held across the country. Included within the PGA bylaws was the proviso that “it was for members of the Caucasian race.” Black golfers organized their own tournaments under the auspices of several associations. One of these was the United Golf Association (UGA). The so-called Negro Tours had several obstacles to overcome, including finding courses on which to play, with most private clubs having restrictive by-laws and many public and municipal courses restricted as well.

Charlie Sifford was born in North Carolina in 1922, near a municipal course where he worked as a caddie before he reached the age of ten, earning 60 cents per day, fifty of which he gave to his mother to help with household expenses. By the time Charlie was a teenager he could consistently shoot par, a scratch golfer. He served in the US military during World War II, another segregated organization, in the US Army’s 24th Infantry Division. Following the war he played in the tournaments sponsored by the UGA, but the purses which would allow a golfer to make a living were in the PGA. Members of the UGA referred to their tournaments as the “Chitlin Circuit”.

In 1952 Sifford received an invitation to play in the Phoenix Open from Joe Louis, which he accepted as it was an opportunity to demonstrate his skills to the all-white PGA players who would be competing there. PGA players who had played the tournament in the past were men like Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson and Jimmy Demaret. When the all-black foursome including Sifford and Louis reached the green on the first hole of their round, they found the cup filled with freshly deposited human waste. They were forced to wait for over an hour for the cup to be cleaned so that they could putt.

Sifford continued to play in UGA events, winning the National Negro Open six times during his career. In 1957 he won the Long Beach Open, a non-PGA event, and in 1959 he qualified for and played in the US Open, tying for 32 in the international field of golfers. When continued pressure from many sources on the PGA to eliminate the “caucasian race” requirement finally achieved a result in 1960, Sifford applied for and received PGA membership, and thus became the first black player on the PGA Tour. By then his best playing days were behind him, but he did win two PGA events during the remainder of his career.

Sifford had to endure the same racial invective and restrictions, particularly in the south, during his career in the PGA as did athletes in other sports. Lee Trevino publicly declared him as belonging in the same category as Jackie Robinson. The stubborn resistance to change among the clubs on which PGA events were held added to Sifford’s burdens, but he bore them with grace and character, and slowly more and more clubs were opened to black members. Tiger Woods credited Sifford for interesting his father in the game of golf. In 2004 Sifford became the first African American to be inducted into the PGA Hall of Fame.

10 Black Athletes Who Changed the World
Oscar Robertson changed the way the game was played and the way that players were treated and paid. Sport Magazine Archives

Oscar Robertson

Before there was LeBron James, before there was Michael Jordan, before there was Dr. J, there was Oscar Robertson. He is the only NBA player to average a triple double (double figures in points, assists, and rebounds in a game) over an entire season, a feat he achieved without the benefit of a three point shot. He learned to shoot as a child of the projects, first in North Carolina and later in Indiana, often practicing using old tennis balls he found, and sometimes using balled up rags secured with tape. His family was too poor to allow him to buy a real basketball.

When his high school team won the Indiana State Championship, the first all-black school to do so, Indianapolis officials re-routed the traditional championship parade through the city’s black neighborhoods rather than the downtown streets where it had always been held before. Robertson attended the University of Cincinnati following high school, and there averaged 33.8 points per game, the third highest average in college basketball history. Yet he was not allowed to stay with the team in hotels on many road trips, instead sleeping in dorm rooms or private homes due to race restrictions.

Even in the town which was home of the university for which he played Robertson encountered theaters which denied him entry, white only water fountains, and restaurants in which he was denied service by the simple means of the staff ignoring him, just blocks from the arena which he helped fill whenever the Bearcats played. He was a member of the 1960 Olympic basketball team which won the Gold Medal, and when he entered the NBA he changed the way the game had been played. He became a perfectionist, placing demands upon himself and his teammates that he could meet, but they often could not.

While playing in the NBA Robertson made his biggest change to the game, and it was in an altogether different type of court than the one upon which basketball is played. The NBA and the competitor American Basketball Association (ABA) were preparing to merge and as president of the NBA Players Association Robertson filed a lawsuit blocking the merger until issues regarding player movement between teams, the reserve clause, and other issues including the annual draft were addressed and resolved. The result of the suit was a decision known as the Oscar Robertson rule, which gave the players free agency after meeting minimum guidelines and service.

The Robertson rule led to the financial situation enjoyed by the players to this day, in which they are free to negotiate with other teams after they have completed the required number of years in the league. Every highly paid free agent in the NBA today has Oscar Robertson to thank for it, as do the players and their agents approaching free agency. Contrary to the warnings of the owners who fought against the Robertson rule, claiming it would bankrupt the league, it helped lead to the expansion and financial success the NBA has exhibited since it was introduced. Its impact is also felt in college basketball, creating more and more millionaires as players leave school early for their piece of the NBA pie.

10 Black Athletes Who Changed the World
Kenny Washington was the first of two black players signed by the Rams to facilitate their move to Los Angeles. WQED

Kenny Washington

Like the NBA and Major League Baseball, the National Football League was once an all-white organization, by mutual agreement of the owners. In the 1930s and 1940s the NFL was second among most football fans to big time college football, and NFL games were often played before more empty seats than those occupied by fans. Teams moved frequently attempting to build fan bases. A single owner could block a decision supported by all of the others. The NFL was a long way from being the organizational juggernaut that it is today.

Kenny Washington played baseball and football at UCLA, a teammate of Jackie Robinson and actor Woody Strode. While Robinson is nationally remembered and celebrated as the man who broke baseball’s color barrier, Washington is ignored after doing the same for the NFL. After graduation some major league baseball teams were interested in Washington, who statistically was a better player than Robinson, but Washington wanted to remain in football. George Halas of the Chicago Bears tried to convince the other owners to allow him to sign Washington and was blocked by a single dissenting vote, that of Washington owner George Preston Marshall.

Washington played in the Pacific Coast Football League, on a semi-pro team which called itself Kenny Washington and the Hollywood Bears, drawing sufficient fans to keep the team paid. When the NFL decided to allow the Cleveland Rams to move to Los Angeles the only place to play was the Los Angeles Coliseum, which had been built using taxpayer’s money. The Coliseum Commission informed the NFL that the Coliseum was unavailable unless the league was integrated. They were backed with pressure from the media. The league relented and the Rams signed Kenny Washington in 1946. In order for him to have a roommate on the road, they also signed Woody Strode.

Washington found himself the target of racial invective and abuse from teammates and opponents alike, as well as enduring the racial slurs of fans. In one incident Washington found himself pinned down following a play, with members of both teams piling on while chalk was rubbed into his eyes, temporarily and painfully blinding him. A running back, Washington was often subjected to attempts to take out his knees, on which he had surgeries performed during his semi-pro career. Both he and Strode were often forced to eat separately from the team, and stay in separate hotels.

Football was not as popular as baseball when Kenny Washington broke the NFL’s color barrier, and the NFL even less popular than the college game. It was baseball’s heyday as the “National Pastime”. Still, although baseball honors Jackie Robinson in every ballpark and in its Hall of Fame, Washington is virtually forgotten in the NFL’s arenas. There is no mention of him in the NFL Hall of Fame. Washington’s career in the NFL was short, his best days were spent on the semi-pro fields in California while the owners of NFL teams argued over whether integration would be good for their league and ultimately, their pocketbooks.

10 Black Athletes Who Changed the World
A young Cassius Clay triumphant at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome. Wikimedia

Cassius Clay – Muhammad Ali

Born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, Muhammad Ali was arguably the most famous and recognizable man in the world by the time of his death. During his lifetime he won Olympic Gold for the United States boxing team, returning to Louisville to be denied service in many of that city’s facilities. He became a polarizing figure, first for embracing Islam and changing his name, then for refusing induction into the United States Army. He became a critic of many black leaders and a spokesman for his race, questioning why it couldn’t bring itself out of often self-inflicted problems and attitudes.

Throughout his professional boxing career Ali was hit over 200,000 times in the head and body. His professional career included 61 fights, of which he won 56, knocked out only once. By contrast he defeated 37 opponents by knockout. He fought and defeated every top ranked heavyweight over the course of his career, which has been referred to as boxing’s second Golden Age. As a fighter he drew fame for the manner in which he fought, which changed over time in deference to his diminishing speed and stamina. By the end of his career in the ring he was but a shell of the flashy and fast boxer he had once been.

By then he had become a spokesman for his race and for the United States as a goodwill ambassador around the world, a beloved figure surrounded by adoring crowds everywhere he went. He remained a controversial, divisive figure to some, with many never being able to forgive his refusal to serve in the United States Army. Some never got over his boasting style of trumpeting his achievements. But he was an inspiration to countless thousands to examine their own consciences and live to their own aspirations and beliefs. His presence helped to galvanize the civil rights movements of the 1960s.

Following his boxing career’s somewhat ugly final years – he lost badly in his last two fights – Ali traveled extensively to draw attention to the difficulties being encountered by the people of the many nations he visited. Prior to the 1990 Gulf War Ali attempted to negotiate the release of American hostages being held as human shields by Saddam Hussein. Ali was successful in obtaining the release of several of the hostages, though he drew a public rebuke for his unauthorized efforts from President George H. W. Bush.

As Ali battled Parkinson’s Syndrome his appearances became less and less frequent, and when he did appear his decline was obvious and sometimes shocking. When he lit the Olympic Torch in Atlanta in 1996 his shaking was obvious and although he smiled he said nothing. He joined actor Michael J. Fox in an appearance before Congress to raise awareness of Parkinson’s. At the opening ceremonies for the 2012 Olympic Games in London he had to be helped to his feet by his wife, too weak to do so unaided. He died in 2016, leaving behind his legacy as The Greatest.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“John Baxter Taylor”, biography entry, Penn Biographies, archives.upenn.edu

“Larry Doby”, entry, Hall of Famers, National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, baseballhall.org

“Earl Lloyd”, entry, Encyclopedia Brittanica, brittanica.com

“Was Jesse Owens Snubbed By Adolf Hitler At The Berlin Olympics?, by Haley Bracken, Encyclopedia Britannica.

“Adolf Hitler, Jesse Owens and the Olympic Myth of 1936”, by Rick Schenkman, The History News Network, February 13, 2012

“Althea Gibson”, entry, The International Tennis Hall of Fame, tennisfame.com

“Wilma Rudolph, Star of the 1960 Olympics, dies at 54”, obituary by Frank Litsky, The New York Times, November 13, 1994

“Charlie Sifford”, entry, The World Golf Hall of Fame, worldgolfhalloffame.org

“The Legacy of Oscar Robertson”, by Bill Simmons, Grantland, March 15, 2012.

“Kenny Washington’s Legacy Lives on Thanks To Efforts Of His Daughter And Others”, by Stu Jackson, rams.com February 18, 2020

“Ali: Lord of the Ring”, by Jess Cagle, TIME Magazine, December 17, 2001