Try imagining the world without Michael Jordan. Take it a step further back, and picture things without the lasting impact of the great Muhammad Ali. Erasing black athletes from history would come with grueling consequences. Not only did they change the way their games are played, but they also provided transcendent inspiration to countless generations. Since the days of Jesse Owens, they have put their careers and well-being on the line to help make the world a better place. Here’s a list of strong and inspirational black athletes who changed things for everyone, in America and beyond.
Jesse Owens was sensational at track and field and he completely mastered sprints and jumps. In 1936, Owens took home four gold medals at the Berlin Summer Olympics as he became the first American to secure field and four track gold medals at one Olympics.
That was at the same Olympics where Adolf Hitler wanted to show the world how much better the Aryan race was. Thanks to Owens, that didn’t go down, and he went on to become one of the most famous track and field athletes ever to live.
Decades have passed, and Arthur Ashe remains the only African American man to win the U.S. Open, Wimbledon, or Australia Open. The tennis star secured 33 overall career titles and was the first black player chosen for the U.S. Davis Cup team.
His reign off the court was just as great as what he did on it. Ashe advocated for civil rights and was even arrested a couple of times in the process for standing up for equal rights. His diagnosis of AIDS led him to start the Arthur Ashe Foundation and the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health.
Before Curt Flood, MLB players didn’t have too much control over their destinies. After Flood landed on the Phillies in the 1969 season via trade, he refused to report to the team. He felt a level of disrespect by the organization because the Cardinals sent out second-level personnel to let him know he was gone.
Willing to forfeit his $100,000 contract, Flood didn’t want to oblige to the trade. By doing that, the MLB started the 10/5 rule which allowed players with ten years of service, and the last five on the same team, to veto any trade. That was a bold sacrifice Flood made to help future athletes and their families.
Long before Simone Biles and Gabby Douglas, there was Dominique Dawes. Known as “Awesome Dawesome,” Dawes became the first black person, male or female, to win an individual Olympic medal in artistic gymnastics back in 1996. She was also on the “Magnificent Seven” team that year.
Dawes is in the U.S.A Olympic Hall of Fame, U.S.A Gymnastics Hall of Fame, and International Gymnastics Hall of Fame. Once she retired, Dawes served as the president of the Women’s Sports Foundation for several years.
Many people debate if Jim Brown is the greatest NFL player of all time. We’re not here to get into that, but he does have plenty of accolades to back up such claims. With three MVPs and eight rushing titles in nine seasons, he’s pretty impressive. However, Brown retired at 30 while he still had gas in the tank.
He then converted all that energy toward helping the black community. He helped African Americans build life skills and donated his time to anti-gang campaigns, a prevalent problem in some black communities.
This next player took matters into his own hands…
Here’s an athlete who probably had something to do with inspiring Colin Kaepernick. Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf caught heat when sat through the “Star-Spangled Banner during the 1995-96 season. He felt that the flag represented “oppression and tyranny,” which didn’t align with his Islamic faith. He ended up getting a one-game suspension.
Later, the Denver Nuggets and NBA worked out a solution where Abdul-Rauf could stand for the anthem, but he would bow his head in prayer instead. He stood up for what he believed in by sitting down… oh, the irony.
Sticking with the NBA, we transition to one of the best to ever do it. There might never be another point guard quite like Magic Johnson after you tally up all he did, and not just on the court. Johnson was one of the first celebrities to announce his HIV diagnosis publicly.
After that, he became a chief supporter of HIV prevention and safe intercourse. Not only that, Johnson is somewhat like the black Santa Claus in urban communities. His idea of bringing businesses like AMC theaters and Starbucks to poor areas in Los Angeles was a brilliant idea.
From 1954-1976, Hank Aaron was on a tear as he strove to become the home run king. During that run, Aaron not only went up against his athletic opponents but he also faced issues ranging from racial slurs to death threats.
He’s had a successful career in baseball and business and he’s become a voice of reason in a sporting landscape that needs more people like him — a great example of how you can persevere over obstacles and become a beacon of light.
This next woman paved the way for future greats in her sport…
Wilma Rudolph remained active in track and field from 1956-1962. Would you believe she had a polio diagnosis in her youth? That didn’t deter her from accomplishing great achievements, however. Rudolph not only faced that personal adversity, but racism was still hideous during her running years.
Still, Rudolph managed to win three gold medals during the 1960 Olympics. Thanks to her inspirational performance, more female teenagers started to take up track and field. She isn’t anything short of an icon.
Not only was Jack Johnson the first black heavyweight boxing champion, but he also stared racism right in its eye in the ring. Johnson squared off with the undefeated white boxer James Jeffries in 1910. Before the fight happened, Jefferies had some choice words for the media.
Jeffries claimed he was going into this fight to prove that white people were superior to African Americans. Much to his displeasure, Johnson knocked him out in the 15th round. That caused riots to happen all over America.
If you don’t know who Jackie Robinson is, here’s a brief history lesson. Robinson was the first to break the color barrier in America’s favorite sport. He was one of the forefathers of the American Civil Rights Movement. The Brooklyn Dodgers GM picked him because he was “black with enough guts not to fight back.”
Robinson didn’t let racism get to him on his way to earning Rookie of the Year, but when he wasn’t obligated to “play nice,” he became one of the most significant competitors the sport has ever known.
Here we have another player to break barriers but in football. Marlin Briscoe didn’t want to be boxed in because of his skin color. He was a star quarterback in college and knew he had what it took to be one in the pros. However, 50 years ago, it was risky even to get a chance to prove it.
The Broncos drafted him as a corner, but he refused to switch positions. He threatened to become a teacher if he couldn’t get a tryout as the quarterback. The team agreed, and that season, Briscoe became the first black quarterback to start.
If there ever were a black Superwoman, then Jackie Joyner-Kersee would have worn the cape. She is the only lady to win three medals in four different Olympic Games. Sports Illustrated voted her as the top women athlete of all-time, and she still holds the world record for the heptathlon.
Off the track, Joyner-Kersee began the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Foundation which gives athletic resources to at-risk families in the St. Louis. An inspiration, she even has an award named after her, the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Athlete of the Year Award.
Out of every basketball player, Michael Jordan is probably the most well-known. Not just for his flashy dunks or the fact that he’s the greatest, but for everything he’s done off the court.
Jordan helped pave the way for future athletes like no other. He played a crucial role in developing the Nike brand into what it is today with his signature shoe line, which in turn helped future athletes with their business. He now hosts youth camps, donates millions to charitable causes, and helps to fix the corrupt prison system.
Long before Serena or Venus Williams, there was Althea Gibson. She blazed a trail for future African American tennis players. Back in 1956, she became the first black player (male or female) to win a Grand Slam title when she won the French Open.
She gathered six Grand Slam titles in total during her playing time. After retirement, Gibson became the New Jersey state commissioner of athletics right before taking a role on the governor’s council on physical fitness.
Bill Russell dominated the hoops world from 1956 to 1969. This wasn’t the first time someone had come around, become the top dog, and made a huge impact. Russell was also the first black head coach in NBA history and pro sports.
Russell won 11 titles in 13 seasons in a town that wasn’t familiar with black people at all. Not only that, but Russell was one of the first athletes to start advocating for civil rights.
John Carlos & Tommie Smith
There probably isn’t another image more iconic in the history of black athletes than the one of Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists in the air during a 1968 Olympic medal ceremony. The two of them used their platform brilliantly after securing medals in the 200-meter dash. Their reason: the racial unrest blacks faced in America.
With that black power salute, the two of them were immediately suspended from the U.S. Olympic team and got death threats once they landed home. It took some years for people to consider them as heroes.
What is there to say that people don’t already know about the man who ‘floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee?’ Muhammad Ali is the apotheosis of this list, and by a pretty large margin. He’s the man who refused the U.S. draft during the Vietnam War, causing him to give up boxing during his prime.
“War is against the teachings of the Holy Qur’an,” he said at the time. “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong… They never called me [expletive].” Ali was as conscious as they come.
One of the more recent cultural icons, Serena Williams is not one to get overlooked. Williams is possibly the greatest tennis player of all time, male or female. In 2017, she won her 23rd Grand slam, the most ever won by any player.
Her reign isn’t limited to the tennis courts either. She is an entrepreneur in fashion and an outspoken activist for social justice. She caused a rift in 2018 after lashing out at an official, saying a male wouldn’t have received the same treatment she did during the match.
“There are bodies in the street and cops are getting paid leave and getting away with murder… I am not looking for approval,” Colin Kaepernick started. “I have to stand up for people that are oppressed. If they take football away, my endorsements from me — I know that I stood up for what is right.”
That quote alone lets you know what the former 49er is all about. Taking a knee during the National Anthem was only the beginning for the football player. Many have followed in his footsteps, and the social landscape in America is slowly changing.