(Editor’s Note: For the next few weeks, Robert J. Greene II, PhD Student in 20th Century American intellectual and political history at the University of South Carolina, who wrote a post for this blog back in June on the Civil Rights movement and memory, will be guest-blogging for us each Sunday. This is his post for this week. — Ben Alpers)
In the burgeoning field of American history and Civil Religion, a potential place of growth and greater exploration is the interaction of sport and the state. Already, scholars are beginning to address this idea. Works such as The Holy Trinity of American Sports by Craig Forney have begun to explore this concept. What I’d like to do to in this short piece is examine the intersection of race, sports, and civil religion in the context of several well-remembered sporting moments in American history.
The 1930s provide several moments that are fertile ground for an examination of civil religion, sports, and race. The victory of Jesse Owens at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, during which Adolf Hitler referred to African American members of the U.S. Olympic Team as “America’s African Legion”, has come to be seen as a watershed moment in American sports history, and the history of American race relations. However, this interpretation, while inspiring and certainly contributing to the story of American actions, both real and symbolic, in fighting Nazism before World War II, may miss the complexity of racial dialogue before the Civil Rights era. An article in American Journalism from 2011, “Jesse Who? Race, the Southern Press, and the 1936 Olympic Games”, for example, shows that newspapers in the United States reported on the Owens victory in profoundly different ways. While today many Americans take pride in the Owens victory, Southern newspapers in 1936 took a far different view of events. Despite Owens and other African Americans representing the United States, some Southern newspapers, driven by the racist attitudes of the day, downplayed or ignored Owens’ contributions to American glory in the athletic arena. Even photos of African American athletes are, according to Drake’s study and building off the work of Paul Martin Lester, difficult to find in Southern newspapers. Deep South newspapers only gave slight coverage to the Owens victories, and included little to no photographic evidence of Owens even being on the team.
If we as intellectual historians continue to tackle ideas of civil religion, and then incorporate sport as a key method in “performing” (for lack of a better term) civil religion, then race cannot be ignored. The heroes of today, such as Owens, Joe Louis, and Jackie Robinson are seen in a far different light today than they were in the 1930s and 1940s. While that would appear to be fairly obvious for Robinson (whose troubles in dealing with racism while playing in the minors and, later, in the majors with the Brooklyn Dodgers are well documented) figures such as Owens and Louis, ostensibly performing for their country, also encountered considerable racism in the coverage about them in the late 1930s. In many ways, race could be considered a crack in the foundation of American civil religion, and that damage to the façade of national unity is quite profound when seen in the context American sport.
A more obvious point when dealing with African Americans, sport, and civil religion would be the 1968 Olympics. While the famous Black Power salute performed by John Carlos and Tommie Smith is the most notable example, other events surround the ’68 Games for African American athletes that must bear an enhanced scrutiny as part of intellectual history and Black Power studies. For example, the attempt to rally African American athletes to boycott the games, initiated by scholar and activist Harry Edwards, is very important. While most Black athletes would go on to participate in the Games, people such as Lew Alcindor (better known today as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) would not participate. Writers such as Peniel Joseph have handled the Black Power ideal during this time period, and others such as Dave Zirin and William C. Rhoden, sports journalists, have taken on the ’68 protest, but it would be interesting to look at this within the context of American civil religion. And, it’s also important to remember that other athletes, such as George Foreman, competed with pride for the United States. (Foreman, in fact, danced around the ring with a small American flag, a marked contrast to the better remembered Black Power salute).
The complicated history of African American athletes and civil religion bears scrutiny from an intellectual history standpoint. After all, athletes (especially during the time periods mentioned above) were highly influenced by ideas about patriotism and racial pride, perhaps to an extent not seen today. Both of these events also took place during dangerously combustible foreign policy crises, with the United States measuring itself against Nazi Germany in 1936, and against the Soviet Union during the Olympic Games from 1956 until 1988. Even now, murmurs of a potential Olympic rivalry between the United States and China add spice to coverage at the Summer Games, and talk of boycotting the 2014 Olympics due to Russia’s anti-gay legislation has stoked comparisons to 1980 (although 1936, and the aborted boycott attempt of the games in Berlin, may be a better comparison). Nonetheless, civil religion, athletes, and race, offers some fruitful options on studying the idea of American civil religion.
 Forney, Craig. The Holy Trinity of American Sports: Civil Religion in Football, Baskeball, and Basketball. (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2007)
 Drake, Robert. “Jesse Who? Race, the Southern Press, and the 1936 Olympic Games” in American Journalism, Vol. 28, Issue 4, pg. 81-110.
 Drake, 87-88.
 Joseph, Peniel. Waiting ‘Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America. See Also, Rhoden, William C. $40 Million Dollar Slaves: the Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete and Zirin, Dave, A People’s History of Sports in the United States: 250 Years of Politics, Protest, People, and Play.
 An excellent book that puts African American athletes in a Cold War context is Globetrotting: African American Athletes and the Cold War by Damion Thomas. On Joe Louis, a good primer is The Fight of the Century: Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, and the Struggle for Racial Equality by Thomas R. Hietala. On Joe Louis as a World War II symbol of patriotism, Lauren Sklaroff’s Black Culture and the New Deal has an excellent analysis. Disclaimer: I was a Teaching Assistant for Dr. Sklaroff here at South Carolina in Spring 2013, but trust me on the book suggestion.