In honor of Black History Month, we take a look at African-American athletes who have left a lasting mark on their community and society as a whole. These athletes were even bigger than the stellar performances they recorded. They transcended the sports genre and altered how the country thought, felt and behaved.
10. Tiger Woods
There were black golfers who came before him. But none revolutionized the sport like Tiger Woods. In 1997, Woods became the first African-American golfer to win The Masters, arguably the most prestigious major tournaments. He even has his own video game named after him: Tiger Woods PGA Tour. Woods is the face of golf.
9. Althea Gibson
Before Serena and Venus Williams there was Althea Gibson. She became the first African-American woman to win the highest achievement in tennis: The Grand Slam (winning all four major tournaments). After she finished dominating tennis, she retired in 1958. In 1964, she decieded to try out a new sport and became the first black woman to play in the LPGA Tour. She was not very successful in golf but she made an impact on the sport. She was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1971.
8. Hank Aaron
His father was a cotton picker. He had to find materials to make his own baseball glove while he was growing up in a racially segregated world. Hammerin’ Hank started his career in the Negro Leagues but was not there for long. The Braves, who were the Boston Braves at the time, signed Aaron to a minor league deal in 1952. In 1954, the same year the team moved to Milwaukee, he made his major league debut and was one of the first five black players in baseball history. With three gold gloves, two batting titles, 25 All-Star appearances and 755 home runs, Aaron is one of the greatest players of all time.
7. Wilma Rudolph
Her story is amazing. She had 21 brothers and sisters, all grew up in poverty. From the time she was born until age 12, she had to wear a brace on her left leg due to the fact that it was twisted after suffering from infantile paralysis. Rudolph was able to overcome this adversity to become a true Olympic hero. She won a bronze medal in the 1956 Olympic Games in the 4×100-meter relay. In 1960, she became the first American woman to win three gold medals in track in the same year. She has been inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame, U.S. Olympics Hall of Fame and the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
6. Bill Russell
Forget asking whether Kobe or LeBron are better than Jordan. There are people out there who believe Bill Russell is better than all three. Russell had to play in Boston during the 60’s. At the time, while the rest of the country was trying to embrace integration, Boston was still not on board with this idea. In 2011, President Obama presented Russell with a Medal of Freedom for his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. From the time he was playing college basketball at the University of San Francisco, Russell was a winner. He won two National Championships in 1955 and 1956. He also helped the United States win a gold medal at the 1956 Olympic Games. That same year he became a Boston Celtic. He went to 12 all-star games, won five MVP awards and a record 11 NBA championships with the Celtics. While Russell was still playing, he also became the first black coach in the NBA and won two championships. Bill Russell is in the NBA Hall of Fame.
5. Jim Brown
He is an icon for the African-American community. Ask anybody who the greatest football player of all time is, the two answers you will hear are Jerry Rice and Jim Brown. When Jerry Rice was asked about how he stacks up against Jim Brown at his Hall of Fame induction, here’s what Rice had to say about him: “I wouldn’t consider myself the greatest wide receiver of all time, but I would consider Jim Brown the best football player of all time.” Brown didn’t get the nickname “First Down” Brown for nothing. In 1957, he became the first player in NFL history to win both the Rookie of the Year and MVP award in the same season. His accolades in football are endless and could take up this whole page by itself. He only played for nine years, which makes his accomplishments even more amazing. Aside from football he became a movie star, appearing in over 30 films, such as Any Given Sunday and The Dirty Dozen. Brown also has started multiple organizations to support at-risk youth in the Cleveland and Los Angeles areas. Jim Brown on and off the field is a very inspirational athlete.
4. Michael Jordan
23. That number is synonymous around the world with Michael Jordan. Jordan went from getting cut from his high school basketball team to being widely considered as the greatest player to ever play the game. That claim is debatable, but what is for certain is this, Michael Jordan revolutionized the game and I doubt we will ever see anything like it again. He is the reason why the NBA is known throughout the world. Kids who grew up watching him were saying the popular phrase “I wanna be like Mike”. Even though Jordan has not played in almost ten years, his shoes are still making people jam stores all around the world hoping for the opportunity to get their hands on the next pair of J’s. Six NBA championships, MVP of all six of those. Five NBA MVP Awards. Jumping from the free throw line for one of the most famous dunks in NBA history. Michael Jordan has had an influence even on those who didn’t get to watch him play.
3. Muhammed Ali
The self-proclaimed “Greatest of all time” doesn’t make number one on my list, but he’s really close. Ali played a huge part in the Civil Rights Movement, having been heavily involved with the Malcolm X movement. He had an incredible 100-5 record as an amateur boxer. His biggest fights were so good they had awesome nicknames for them such as “The Rumble in the Jungle” and “Thrilla in Manila”. His three fights with Joe Frazier alone could be the three greatest fights of all time. He fought during the golden age of heavyweight boxing and defeated several other greats like George Foreman, Sonny Liston, Floyd Patterson and Joe Frazier. Just like I could spend a whole page breaking down Jim Brown’s accolades, we can spend a whole page looking at all the famous poetic quotes Ali dropped during his career.
2. Jesse Owens
It was a dark time in the world. 1936. Battling racism in his own country, the United States, Owens competed in the Olympics held in Berlin, Germany. Owens now had to deal with another form of racism. Hitler was the most powerful man in Germany. The world was looking for hope and Jesse Owens delivered a performance that will be remembered forever. He won gold medals in the 100-meter and 200-meter sprints, the 4 x 100-meter relay and the long jump. Jesse Owens is a true American hero.
1. Jackie Robinson
What many people may not know is Major League Baseball allowed black athletes until 1880. The National League segregated and black players were forced to play in the Negro Leagues for about 60 years. In 1946, the Los Angeles Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson and called him up to the major leagues a year later, making him the first black player in MLB. This did not go over well with many of his own Dodger teammates. Some threatened to quit the team. Robinson also had to deal with fans and players of opposing teams screaming racial insults and giving him death threats everywhere he went. Through all this time, Robinson kept his cool and just let his play do the talking. He won the MLB Rookie of the Year Award in 1947, MVP Award in 1949 and made it to six all-star games. His jersey number, 42, is retired by all teams in MLB in honor of the barriers that he broke not just in baseball, but also in society. Without Jackie Robinson, there’s a good chance to list would be nonexistent today.