U.S. Intellectual History Blog

A Continued Look at Sports and Civil Religion (Guest Post by Robert Greene)

(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.”[1] 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.

[1] Zirin, Dave. A People’s History of Sports in the United States, pg. 44.

16 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Robert–Nice post on Jack Johnson. I am especially interested in the contrasts with Joe Louis and the similarities to Muhammad Ali (though as a member of the Nation of Islam he rejected relationships with white women).

    Joe Louis’ camp shut out Johnson, fearing any association with them. In retaliation, Johnson ridiculed Louis’ boxing skills and regularly bet against him.

    I especially Recommend Geoffrey Ward’s book Unforgivable Blackness and the Ken Burns documentary by the same name.

  2. Thanks for the kind words! I’ll definitely check out those books. I must admit I’ve only scratched the surface of sports history so far, but I’d like to dive in more, especially when it comes to the United States competing on an international level.

  3. 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.”[1] 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.

    That’s the interesting part, along with

    Joe Louis’ camp shut out Johnson, fearing any association with them. In retaliation, Johnson ridiculed Louis’ boxing skills and regularly bet against him.

  4. Dave Zirin wrote a piece last summer on Brent Musburger’s take on Tommie Smith and John Carlos. The url is http://www.thenation.com/blog/168209/after-forty-four-years-its-time-brent-musburger-apologized-john-carlos-and-tommie-smith#

    The controversy over Russia’s anti-gay propaganda law nad the boycotts of Russian products such as Stoil and protests like the one outside of McDonald’s corporate headquarters shows how sexual orientation battles are now being assimilated into the civil religion in sports.

    • shows how sexual orientation battles are now being assimilated into the civil religion in sports.

      The black = gay paradigm is still in its ascendancy but there is no actual analogue to apartheid.

      That the Saffer Barry Richards–easily one of the 5 or 10 greatest cricketers in human history–never got to show his stuff on the world stage, now that stung bigtime. You gotta hit ’em where it hurts.

      An apartheid for homosexuals? This riff falls short of critical mass. Even the Russkis would nod and wink at any potential Gold Medalist if they were confident they’d keep it all on the downlow. Think Roy Cohn, with colors reversed.

  5. Thanks Robert for introducing sports and race into the discussion. I don’t know if your going to continue on this subject but I’d like to know how you see Mike Tyson fitting in here.
    Robert Bellah said that Civil Religion “is not the worship of the American nation but an understanding of the American experience in light of ultimate and universal reality”. Ray Haberski has said that civil religion is a “strange beast” and that “it can often appear to mean almost anything to anyone at anytime. As a hybrid of nationalism and traditional religion, civil religion has an ideological flexibility that is intoxicating because it is so evocative, elastic, and deceptively complex. Civil religion seems to capture the intersection between faith and civic obligation in a way that allows a mixing of truth claims”.
    Can you define civil religion and how your using that definition in relation to sports and race?

  6. Well, Robert, this post is becoming more timely by the day. Just saw this headline:

    Heavyweight Champ Vitali Klitschko to Run for President in Ukraine

    Certainly, the connection between sports — or “sport,” as the Commonwealth countries and well-heeled Republican candidates put it — and (civil) religion both supersedes and antedates the American context (e.g., the *original* Olympic games). But it is inflected here in particular ways.

    My immediate reaction to the news that Klitschko is seeking the Ukrainian presidency would count, I think, as an irritable mental gesture. But it is interesting to think about the importance of this particular sport in 20th century history as a signifier of national or ethnic prowess, especially (sometimes exclusively) at the heavyweight division.

    As I’ve said elsewhere, I’m not a big fan of the Klitscko brothers. I think I would be even less a fan, were such a thing possible, if Vitaly were to become president of Ukraine. However, that development does suggest some interesting scenarios — maybe the next Ukraine/Russia dispute could be settled by Vitaly and Vladimir Putin going toe-to-toe. “Send forth your champion!” Honestly, I think that dynamic — “this guy could be our nation’s champion in world affairs” — will help Vitaly’s bid immensely.

  7. I had no idea about the Johnson-Louis conflict, it’s quite a fascinating episode through which the Washington-Dubois debate reiterates itself. An important issue not to be forgotten is that Johnson represented the symbolic threat of black male sexuality, especially through his many affairs with white women. This is a type that goes back to the Reconstruction area, and the fears surrounding the black brute, the notion that African Americans were inherently violent, sexually crazed, rapists and so forth. This of course also ties in with paranoia about interracial relations.
    The figure of Louis seems analogous to Jackie Robinson, it would be interesting to study the parallels and contrasts between how US mainstream culture has absorbed the two as “national heroes”.

    • I agree, although to me the Mandingo aspect is a dead end whereas Black America’s social/philosophical battle of resistance vs. accommodation is perhaps not done.

      We have Jack Johnson, WEB, and Muhammad Ali on one side and Joe Louis, BookerT and Joe Frazier on the other.

      [Then there’s Barack Obama walking the tightrope, although he might turn out to be a one of a kind talent at that.]

      • I am actually not so sure that what you call the Mandingo figure has disappeared; it reiterates itself in mainstream representations of black male violence, as exemplified in the Trayvon Martin affair (and yes, I will mention it, representations of male virility in porn).

      • K C-P,


        refers to the sexual prowess thing.

        In my view, that page has turned, where it’s Black America looking askance at white wives. The interesting question is whether if Barack Obama had taken a white wife, he’d have been seen as rejecting his “blackness” [and/or rejecting black women as a whole] and lost more black votes than white.

        See also quarterback Robert Griffin III:


        “And I’ve talked to some people down in Washington D.C., friends of mine, who are around and at some of the press conferences, people I’ve known for a long time. But my question, which is just a straight honest question. Is he a brother, or is he a cornball brother?”

        What does that mean, Parker was asked. “Well, [that] he’s black, he kind of does his thing, but he’s not really down with the cause, he’s not one of us,” Parker explained. “He’s kind of black, but he’s not really the guy you’d really want to hang out with, because he’s off to do something else.”

        Why is that your question, Parker was asked. “Well, because I want to find out about him,” Parker said. “I don’t know, because I keep hearing these things. We all know he has a white fiancée. There was all this talk about he’s a Republican, which, there’s no information [about that] at all. I’m just trying to dig deeper as to why he has an issue.

        [Worse, a Republican, but that’s another story. Clarence Thomas has a white wife–from where does he receive the most scorn?]

      • In fact it may have become a double whammy!


        KW: Irene also asks: Do you think that Clarence Thomas’ choice of a white wife reflects his politics or his looking upon Black women as lesser than?
        LE: Something I learned while socializing with Clarence was that black Republican men generally had white wives, almost as if it was a litmus test, a way of assuring white men that they could be counted on to be consistent politically.

      • Oh, I totally got the mandingo reference, I was referring to how it is still with us in many ways. Definitely a dead end, definitely not dead. Thanks for the references though. Btw, I wouldn’t completely agree with your statement about the page being turned, “where it’s Black America looking askance at white wives.” Depends on what segment of “Black America” you are referring to, and how blackness is defined, within Afrrican American culture and outside it.

      • Dunno. Just suggesting this fear of black virility riff may need an update. “The Great White Hope” is almost 50 years old, afterall.

        Folks have long speculated that one of the major reasons former Congressman Harold Ford Jr. lost his senate race in Tennessee was because of his marriage to a white woman, which proved to be suspicious to some black voters. According to Danielle Belton, of The Black Snob

        “He’s safe. Boring. At times too conservative to even BE a Democrat. He’s more of a Blue Dog than anything. And while there are lots and lots of black people who are socially conservative, but liberal on justice and economic issues, Harold Ford Jr. has long left the world’s most nasty, self-loathing taste in people’s mouths.

        And having a white wife DOES NOT HELP HIM. This is just a reality. While most of the folks who hang out in Snob Blog country are pretty cosmopolitan in their thinking (I believe most of you just dislike Harold for being a crappy politician), we all know that there will be more than a few folks who will question his loyalties to the community and nothing raises a giant red flag to these folks like not marrying one of your own.”


    • Love that footage! My brief and only introduction to the historical Jack Johnson was in reading Lewis Erenberg’s *The Greatest Fight of Our Generation* (2005). That books covers the Louis-Schmeling encounters, but necessarily looks back that the pre-1930s history of boxing as a prelude. – TL

Comments are closed.