The Martin Luther King Effect

By Marcus Shockley

Martin Luther King

Part of being an effective sports scout and sports writer is the ability to be objective. As the fans curse the referee from the stands and call for his head on a pike, an objective observer might see that the player was indeed shuffling his feet; when the fans cheer a no-look pass, an objective observer might see that the player hurled a dangerous bomb from the corner when he had a timeout in his pocket and a two point lead. Objectivity is the name of the game, which means not playing favorites and not being a cheerleader for any team or player.

However, when it comes to Martin Luther King, Jr., I do not apologize for a lack of objectivity; I am a fan, and MLK is one of my heroes in a world with very few of them. I’d like to believe that I could be as brave as Dr. King, but I doubt I am and I doubt I ever could be; I doubt that many of his original followers were, either; a great leader does exactly that, lead and give strength to those who may not have it, and that’s what makes them unique. Without Dr. King to lead the charge, how many would have decided to join the movement?

I’ve visited the Martin Luther King center in Atlanta and I’ve visited the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. I recommend that every US Citizen does the same; I do not know how any human who feels compassion cannot visit these memorials and not be moved at the core of their being. The first time I visited MLK, I also visited the Ebenezer Baptist Church where Dr. King preached, and the church looks just as it did when he gave his sermons there. As you walk among the empty pews, daylight filters through the windows and Dr. King’s voice booms through the wood and stone, from speakers tucked away that give the effect that his voice is resonating from everywhere at once.

It is incredibly powerful.

As I stood and looked at the lectern where he stood and spoke to his flock, and heard his voice as he spoke of a world where we could live together, I realized that he did it. He did achieve his dream. Are we “there” yet? Well, no. Humans will continue to try and find ways to discriminate, but the ocean of change that has occurred since Martin Luther King’s day can be considered nothing short of resounding success.

In short, he changed the world, and not in the hyperbolic description that we love to engage in with sports, but in reality. The world is different.

So what does this have to do with basketball, or sports? Well, besides the obvious, that many African-American players could not even participate in professional leagues until Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers, there’s a treasure trove of related ripples where Dr. King’s success changed the world, and here’s a few of those ripples. Some of these are juxtapositions of what once was; some are changes that were part of the wave that Dr. King joined.

1. The Renaissance Big Five – The Best Pro Team You’ve Never Heard Of

Harlem Rens

Of course you’ve heard of Jackie Robinson, and you might even know that the first African-American basketball player to be drafted in the NBA was Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton in 1950. Clifton entered the NBA with two other African-American players, Earl Lloyd and Chuck Cooper. But long before Clifton played his first game for the Knicks, the Renaissance Big Five, a.k.a. the New York Renaissance, was a dominant all-black team that played during the 1920s and 1930s in the Renaissance Casino and Ballroom in Harlem, NY.

The Big Five was loaded and regularly played all-white teams, and not scrubs. In 1925, the “Rens” beat the Original Celtics, who were the dominant white basketball team of the day. In fact, the Rens won 88 consecutive games during their 1932-33 season, and yes, you read that correctly – they won 88 in a row in one season.

The Original Celtics are not linked to today’s Boston Celtics, but they were no pushovers – during the 1923 season, the Celtics had compiled a record of 193-11-1 (you could actually have a tie in basketball in those days). To put it mildly, the Rens were not just a bunch of gym rats or weekend warriors. They were legit, but they could only prove it when they played white teams. In today’s post-MLK world, basketball players of any race have a shot at playing in the NBA, as long as they are good enough. The Rens slick passing and movement is echoed in the play on every court in existence today, no longer hidden from the mainstream sports world.

2. Washington versus the Redskins

George Marshall redskins

In 1961, 14 years after Jackie Robinson stepped onto the infield for the Dodgers, the Redskins were the only professional football team without a single black player on their roster, prompting the famous quote from sportswriter Sam Lacy, who called the ‘Skins the “lone wolf in lily-whiteism.” George Marshall, the owner of the team, had never signed an African-American player and, truthfully, had no intention of ever doing so.

This prompted action from the Kennedy administration, and Stewart L. Udall, Secretary of the Interior, warned the Redskins front office that significant efforts to desegregate the team had to be made of federal prosecution could be forthcoming. Udall was emboldened by the swelling civil rights movement and went after Marshall.

Now, let’s pause a moment and consider the heavyweight of professional football that is, and was, George Marshall. He was one of the three founding fathers of the NFL along with George Halas (Bears) and Art Rooney (Steelers). He is in the Hall of Fame for some of his incredible business magic and vision concerning the game of football. After moving his team from Boston to D.C., under his hand the team won six division titles between 1937 and 1945. He invented the football championship and the player draft. He invented the halftime show. In many ways, he created much of the NFL that we know today.

He was a giant, but he was extremely racist, and very visible to an administration that had been elected on a pro-civil-rights platform, and they put pressure on Marshall to make changes. The media went after Marshall as well, especially Lacy, who stated “This column has never advocated suicide, but in GPM’s case, it would be readily forgiveable.”

However, Marshall’s stance began to lead to poor performance on the field, only winning a single game in 1960, and that also opened the door for public opinion to shift against him. In 1961, Udall determined that the stadium in D.C. that the city had been built with large amounts of public funds and therefore he issued that unless the “Paleskins” changed their ways, they would not be allowed to play in their home stadium. This caused an eruption of insults and mudslinging between Marshall and Udall, and the American Nazi Party paraded outside of the stadium with signs like “Keep Redskins White!” (an incredibly dense insult that no doubt was lost on it’s purveyors), but ultimately, after months of antagonism and embarrassment for the other owners, NFL commissioner Pet Rozelle lowered the boom on Marshall, and he relented. It’s not clear what Rozelle said to Marshall in their meeting, but to stop the steel-spined racist who’d fought civil rights his entire life in one conversation makes one wonder exactly what, and how, it was said.

Has the world changed? Yes.

3. Before Jackie Robinson Broke The Barrier, It Had To Be Built

Jackie Robinson

So I’ve mentioned Jackie Robinson’s 1947 achievement a couple of times, but lost in most of sports history is the fact that Robinson wasn’t actually the first player to play alongside whites in professional sports. In the early 1920s, a few black players were on rosters of NFL teams all the way until 1933, when the owners decided to ban African-American players. But five years before Robinson, the National Basketball League had two teams, the Toledo Jim White Chevrolets and the Chicago Studebakers, who signed African-American players to fill their rosters. The league remained integrated, and when it merged with the NBA in 1950, five years before Dr. King led the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the NBA also became integrated. The NBL has no relation to the current league in Australia of the same name.

The roots of the integrated NBL go deep in the current NBA. Five of the current NBA teams were originally NBL teams: The Minneapolis Lakers (now the Los Angeles Lakers), the Rochester Royals (now the Sacramento Kings), the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons (now the Detroit Pistons), the Buffalo Bisons/Tri-Cities Blackhawks (now the Atlanta Hawks), and the Syracuse Nationals (now the Philadelphia 76ers).

This isn’t to say things were all wine and roses for black players in the professional sports ranks at this time; many clubhouses were segregated and Jim Crow laws were still a blight on the country, some of the effects are still felt today. But the truth remains that African-Americans have as much right to the legacy of pro basketball as anyone, and it was the pressure of the civil rights movement that helped all of the changes that eventually came to pass. It was this environment that fostered the young reverend and created a world where he knew he had to join in and lead the charge.

There are many heroes of the civil rights movement. Average, every day citizens who fought for their own rights and demanded to be treated with justice and equality. Those heroes made it possible for the world we have today, where no one would ever consider telling a U.S. player who was African-American, Jewish, Hispanic, Asian or any other nationality or race that they couldn’t play pro sports because of their race. It’s not a perfect world. There’s still racism. But Dr. King’s dream has come a long, long way.

I’m a fan of Dr. King’s dream.

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