The underappreciated role of black athletes in the civil rights movement is one of the themes that jumps out from Volume 3 of Our Roots Run Deep: the Black Experience in California, 1950-2000. New editions of the four-volume set are available today. To put the significance of Jackie Robinson and Bill Russell in context, the following letter indicates that blacks were routinely refused factory jobs as late as the 1960s.
It is difficult to overstate the motivational role of Jackie Robinson, the Pasadena sports and military hero who was an all-star in three sports at UCLA (football, basketball and track) , to take on the task of integrating major league baseball. Two chapters by Anthony Pratkansis describe Robinson’s impact on American society in Vol. 2 of Our Roots Run Deep: the Black Experience in California, 1900-1950.
A decade later, Bill Russell pulled off the amazing feat of winning NCAA, Olympic and NBA championships, boosting the morale of the civil rights movement even further. As the NBA season launches again, with a preponderance of black players, it is difficult to realize how Russell’s run of nine championships spanned a transformation in American society.
Some of the athletes were so important in later life that we forget they were sports stars. Lionel Wilson was a Negro Leagues pitcher long before he was first black mayor of Oakland, and Tom Bradley was a track standout at UCLA who later became mayor of Los Angeles for 20 years. Ralph Bunche also was a UCLA basketball legend who ascended to the highest ranks of the United Nations at the same time that Robinson was breaking into the major leagues.
Bunche went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize. The winning attitude of sports has been just as important to the civil rights progress as legal victories. Relive those magic moments in Volume 3 of Our Roots Run Deep: the Black Experience in California, 1950-2000.
Other chapters cover S.F.’s Fillmore District: the Cutting Edge of Black Urban Removal, the Bakke decision, the Watts and Rodney King riots, the Proposition 209 campaign, whether the CIA brought crack into south-central Los Angeles, bringing understanding to topics which still resonate through today’s news.
As the referees toss the ball up for the opening jump balls of the NBA season, reflect on the shoulders upon whom they stand.