The legacy of Blacks in sports in general, and running in particular, is exceptional in the heights that we have achieved and painful in the obstacles that we have fought to overcome. The following athletes are only a fraction of the thousands who have made an indelible mark on the landscape of sports and race in America. Their sacrifices, challenges, and accomplishments compel us to equally continue to "run for the race."
John Carlos and Tommy Smith
On the 1968 Olympic victory stand in Mexico City, Tommy Smith and John Carlos made a bold and uncompromising stand for racial justice in America. Smith had just set a world record winning the 200 meters, and Carlos took the bronze. At a time when racial oppression was suffocating many Blacks, and institutionalized racism in collegiate and professional athletics was rampant, they put their careers and personal safety on the line. With raised black gloved fists, Carlos and Smith, made a statement more profound than their track victory ever would and one which resonated worldwide. Their protest was supported by a host of fellow athletes: Wyomia Tyus (100-meter gold medalist), Lacey O'Neil (200-meter world record holder), medal winners Bob Beamon and Ralph Boston, and Lew Alcindor/Kareem Abdul Jabar to name a few. Prior to the protest Tommie Smith offered the following perspective, "If I can open a single door the might lead in the direction of freedom for my people then I must open that door...if there is a chance that it will serve to dramatize, much less solve, the problems faced by my people."
At the 1960 Olympics Wilma Rudolph blazed to three gold medals. Her accomplishments on and off the track posed a serious challenge to popular perceptions about the roles and place for women and Blacks in competitive sports. Yet the ingrained prejudices of the white populace did not easily dissolve. Sports historian Susan Cahn remarked that, "like other black athletes, she was represented as a wild beast, albeit a gentle attractive creature who could be adopted as a pet of the American public." In spite of the challenges she faced Ms. Rudolph recognized that, “The triumph can't be had without the struggle. And I know what struggle is. I have spent a lifetime trying to share what it has meant to be a woman first in the world of sports so that other young women have a chance to reach their dream.” She noted that, “I would be very disappointed if I were only remembered as a runner because I feel that my contribution to the youth of America has far exceeded the woman who was the Olympic champion. The challenge is still there.”
When the world thinks of excellence in cycling the name Lance Armstrong invariably comes to mind. However, 100 years before Armstrong's first Tour de France victory, Marshall "Major" Taylor, a Black man, was America's first cycling champ. In 1899 he won the 1-mile world championship. Taylor's achievements came a decade before Jack Johnson's boxing title, 37 years before Jesse Owens' Olympic victories, and 46 years before Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier. Born to the descendants of slaves in 1878, Taylor faced down the social cancer of racism to become one of the most celebrated champions in cycling. In spite of racial hostility, threats, and physical assaults, he finished 1899 with seven world records to his name. He enjoyed his greatest prominence in Europe. For example in 1901 he was welcomed as a hero in France and proceeded to beat every European champion.
Arguably one of the most prominent icons of sports protest and achievement in the 1950s and 1960s, Ali was the symbol and substance of political resistance and Black consciousness among professional athletes. Regarding his refusal to go to fight in the Vietnam war Ali said, "I'm expected to go overseas to help free people in South Vietnam and at the same time my people here are being brutalized, hell, no!"
Voicing the frustrations of a large segment of the Black population, Ali wrote that Black athletes should "take all this fame the white man gave to us because we fought for his entertainment, and we can turn it around. Instead of beating up each other... we will use our fame for freedom."
The grandson of slaves, Ted Corbitt is often called "the father of long distance running." In high school he was sometimes banned from track meets when white athletes refused to compete against him. He eventually went on to set and hold several running records. He ran the marathon in the 1952 Olympics, he won the Philadelphia marathon four times, and he was the US National Marathon Champion in 1954. He was an ultramarathon pioneer and helped to revive interest in the sport in the US. He was the founding president of the New York Road Runners, and he was the founder and first president of the Road Runners Club of America. Corbitt also developed standards to accurately measure courses and certify races. The technique was widely adopted and is still in use today. Corbitt died at 88 years of age on December 12, 2007.
In the 1800s ultra-distance multi-day walking races were extremely popular. Fred Hitchborn was one of the people who caught the "pedestrian fever." He was a grocery store clerk in Boston for six years before he started walking professionally. He was five feet seven and weighed 145 pounds and was born in 1859. His first race was in April, 1879 at the Boston Music Hall. An African American, Hitchborn, became known as "Black Dan". He also changed his name to Frank Hart. He was the favorite and followed by many at races because of his color, and he walked with some of the most prominent names in the walking world. Things did not always go smoothly for Hitchborn who explained that no one would shake his hand at the starting line, and that he received racial taunts and threats of violence from spectators. After a spectator gave him some soda water he became severely ill and it was determined that he was poisoned. Even being ill-stricken he managed to beat his opponents. He won the Rose Belt race by completing 540 miles, one mile short of the world record. Hitchborn then cracked the world record at the 1880 O'Leary race by successfully running 565 miles and he earned $17,000. His winnings in 1880 totaled $27,000. Hitchborn’s efforts to shatter the "colored barrier" did not come with the necessary recognition. "The efforts of 'Black Dan' and the other African- American walkers would become an insignificant event in the annals of sports history.”