(Editor’s Note: this is the second in a series of weekly guest posts that Robert Greene will be doing for us. — Ben Alpers)
Last week I wrote a blog post about the potential intersections of race, sports, and civil religion that can be examined by intellectual historians. Today I’d like to conclude my thoughts on that particular matter, with some more analysis of events that I missed last week, and also expound upon comments in an excellent (as always) comments section.
Jack Johnson, of course, is an interesting example of how African American athletes are sometimes perceived as adversaries of the American state within American civil religion. During his ascent to, and reign as, heavyweight champion of the world, Johnson was reviled for his outspokenness, his romance of several white women, and most significantly, his prowess as a boxer. It’s important to remember that African Americans in the early 20th century were seen as being either too lazy or too weak to be great athletes. With the rise of Jack Johnson, however, the creation of more modern stereotypes about African American athletes (natural athleticism, ignorant brutes) began to come into the American lexicon.
The search for a “Great White Hope” to defeat Johnson can’t be divorced from the wider racial outlook in mainstream American society in the early 20th century. Nor can it be separated from concerns held by white elites in both the United States and Europe about the present and the future of the white race. Just as important, however, is the attitude of African American intellectuals towards Johnson. Not surprisingly, Booker T. Washington was critical of Johnson’s actions in public, stating that Johnson showed “that this is another illustration of the almost irreparable injury that a wrong action on the part of a single individual may do to a whole race.” W.E.B. Du Bois, however, wrote glowingly of Johnson and praised him as a shining example of African American achievement during an era that has come to be called the “nadir” of African American history.
It’s important to not allow the story of Johnson to end with just his lifetime, however. One reason I brought up the intersection of sports and civil religion last week, and wish to continue the dialogue this week, is that memory plays a major role in the creation and maintenance of civil religion. So it is with Johnson, who is remembered far more positively today than he ever was while he was alive. Race and civil religion in American history is an ever changing relationship. Pariahs in a segregated past are embraced as heroes and role models in a multiracial present. Such was the case with Johnson and, I’d argue, is also the case with Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the 1968 Olympic runners who are best known for their Black Power Fist salute on the medal stand in Mexico City.
At the time of their salute, the two runners were condemned by many white sports writers, and also quite a few African American journalists. Today, however, the two are often seen as heroes for standing up for what they believed in, despite the potential backlash to them. I’d argue that their incorporation into American civil religion is part of a construction of memory of the 1960s that seeks to include some, but certainly not all, African Americans who adapted a radical stance in the late 1960s.
These discussions have, so far, also avoided the subject of gender. Last week, after I wrote my post, I realized I hadn’t made any mention of female athletes. Their place in American sports history is still growing, but it often comes down to, “These athletes were ignored in their own era. We must recover them for a new generation of scholars and sports fans.” That doesn’t answer the question of where female athletes, from Babe Didrikson to Wilma Rudolph to the 1999 U.S. National Team that won the Women’s World Cup that particular year, stand in American civil religion. This is part of a larger discussion of on where gender lies within civil religion, but it’s a good discussion to have.
 Zirin, Dave. A People’s History of Sports in the United States, pg. 44.