Most Influential African-American Athletes

Sports have been a catalyst for social change in this country, especially within the civil rights movement, as African-Americans have battled institutional racism in order to earn equal opportunity and respect in the athletic arena. Through courage and determination, many individual athletes blazed trails for future ballplayers and in the process became heroes and role models for African-Americans in all sectors of society. Black History Month is the perfect time to count down the twenty most influential African-American athletes in sports history.

20) Jackie Joyner-Kersee

Sports Illustrated named Joyner-Kersee the greatest female athlete of the 20th century. She won six Olympic medals in track and field, including three golds, and also scored over 1,000 points in a stellar college basketball career with the UCLA Bruins. She was an inspiration for countless African-American girls.

19) Bill Russell

Russell won 11 NBA championships over his 13 seasons with the Boston Celtics and changed the way the game was played through his dominance on the defensive end of the court. He was a stalwart supporter of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement and became the first African-American head coach in any major sport.

18) Andrew “Rube” Foster

Rube was one of the best African-American pitchers of the early 20th century, though his biggest contribution to the game came as an entrepreneur. He organized the National Negro League in 1920, the first long-standing league for African Americans, which was essential to the growth of Negro League baseball in this country.

17) Charlie Sifford

Sifford was the target of racist taunts as he was repeatedly denied access to PGA events throughout the 1950’s. He eventually became the first African-American to participate on the tour when the PGA dropped it’s “Caucasian-only clause” in 1961 and in 2004 became the first African-American inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame.

16) Frederick “Fritz” Pollard

In 1919, Pollard and Marshall became the first African-Americans to play in the NFL. Walter Camp once called Pollard “one of the greatest runners these eyes have ever seen.” He led the Akron Pros to the first NFL championship in 1920 and a year later was named player-coach, making him the first African American head coach in the NFL.

15) Jack Johnson

The first African-American to win the heavyweight title was a lightning rod for controversy. He was beloved within the African-American community, though a brash black man with an affinity for white women didn’t go over very well with white America. His victory over Jim Jeffries in 1910 sparked race riots throughout the country.

14) Magic Johnson

Magic brought excitement and prosperity to college basketball and the NBA with his style, flare and million-dollar smile. His announcement that he’s HIV-positive changed the way people perceived the illness and he’s been a leading advocate for HIV/AIDS research and prevention ever since.

13) Hank Aaron

Hammerin’ Hank was the epitome of class, as he endured horrific racism in pursuit of the most hallowed record in professional sports, Babe Ruth’s 714 home runs. Since eclipsing the Babe’s mark he’s worked with Major League Baseball to advance the rights of minorities within the game.

12) Tiger Woods

This son of an African-American father and Thai mother is arguably the greatest golfer of all time and has introduced a white, country club sport to people from all different racial and socio-economic backgrounds. In the process, he’s chipped away at the institutional racism that still exists within the golf world.

11) Curt Flood

Flood refused to accept a trade from the St. Louis Cardinals after the 1969 season and instead took Major League Baseball to court, challenging the reserve clause, which he compared to slavery. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, where he lost, but it was the first step in a process that eventually led to free agency in baseball.

10) Wilma Rudolph

Rudolph was one of the stars of the 1960 Olympics in Rome, where she became the first American female to win three gold medals in track and field during one Olympic games. She emboldened girls around the globe to compete in athletics and was an active participant in the civil rights movement.

9) Althea Gibson

Gibson has been called “the Jackie Robinson of tennis” for breaking the sport’s color barrier. She was the first African American to win a Grand Slam event and won a total of five throughout her career. When she retired from tennis she became the first African American woman to play professional golf.

8)  Arthur Ashe

Ashe remains the only African American man to win Wimbledon and was a staunch proponent of civil rights in the U.S. and abroad. He was one of the first athletes to take a stand against apartheid in South Africa and fought for the right of immigrants in the United States, even getting twice for the causes. He also raised awareness for HIV/AIDS, the disease which eventually killed him.

7) John Carlos/Tommy Smith

The two track stars provided one of the most memorable moments in Olympic history when they lowered their heads and raised black-gloved fists on the medal stand during the playing of The Star-Spangled Banner at the 1968 Games. Carlos and Smith paid an enormous price for their gesture, but they succeeded in calling the world’s attention to the plight of African-Americans.

6) Jim Brown

Considered by many to be the greatest football player to ever suit up on the gridiron, Brown starred with Raquel Welsh in the first interracial love scene in a movie in 100 Rifles. He worked with other great athletes to bring about social and political change within the African-American community and in recent years has successfully quelled gang violence in California.

5) Michael Jordan

“Air” Jordan transcended race, becoming one of the most popular athletes in the world and elevating the popularity of basketball to new heights in the U.S. and abroad. He redefined the marketability of a professional athlete, becoming a brand unto himself, and recently became the first African American former athlete to be the majority owner of a sports franchise.

4) Joe Louis

“The Brown Bomber” was one of the greatest boxers of all-time and is best remembered for knocking out Germany’s Max Schmeling. The victory over Hitler’s pawn made him a hero to white America; no small feat in 1938, and it’s safe to say that no athlete has been more embraced and revered by the African-American community.

3) Jesse Owens

Owens was the first African-American athlete to be lionized by Americans of all races when he shattered Hitler’s idea of a “master race” at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. His four gold medals and three world records at the Games inspired millions of African-Americans, including a young Jack Roosevelt Robinson.

2) Muhammad Ali

Ali was one of the greatest pugilists of all-time, a poet, a showman, and perhaps most importantly, an activist. He’s become a worldwide symbol of resistance for his willingness to stand up for what he believes in, whether it’s racial equality, his religion or opposition to the Vietnam War, often at great personal cost.

1) Jackie Robinson

No athlete is more closely identified with the struggle of African-Americans than Robinson. He overcame vile racism and overwhelming pressure to brake the color barrier to America’s favorite pastime, inspiring African-Americans in all facets of society with his courage and dignity. Later in life he used his status to support the civil rights movement.

Honorable Mentions: Wilt Chamberlain, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, Ernie Davis, Lee Elder, Florence Griffith-Joyner, Spencer Haywood, Carl Lewis, Marion Motley, Leroy “Satchel” Paige, Frank Robinson, Gene Upshaw, Serena and Venus Williams


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