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African American Athletes and Cold War Politics

Damion L.Thomas

Publication Year: 2012

Throughout the Cold War, the Soviet Union deplored the treatment of African Americans by the U.S. government as proof of hypocrisy in the American promises of freedom and equality. This probing history examines government attempts to manipulate international perceptions of U.S. race relations during the Cold War by sending African American athletes abroad on goodwill tours and in international competitions as cultural ambassadors and visible symbols of American values._x000B__x000B_Damion L. Thomas follows the State Department's efforts from 1945 to 1968 to showcase prosperous African American athletes including Jackie Robinson, Jesse Owens, and the Harlem Globetrotters as the preeminent citizens of the African Diaspora rather than as victims of racial oppression. With athletes in baseball, track and field, and basketball, the government relied on figures whose fame carried the desired message to countries where English was little understood. However, eventually African American athletes began to provide counter-narratives to State Department claims of American exceptionalism, most notably with Tommie Smith and John Carlos's famous black power salute at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics._x000B_

Published by: University of Illinois Press

Series: Sport and Society


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Title Page

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

This book would not have been possible without the support of a number of scholars, teachers, friends, and family members. As hard as it is to do so, there are three who are deserving of the highest thanks: Andrew Knox, Jaime Goodreau, and Robert Hill. Andrew Knox is my grandfather, and my role model. ...

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pp. 1-12

In 1959 the United States State Department asked the six-foot-ten African American professional basketball player Bill Russell to take a goodwill tour of Libya, Liberia, the Ivory Coast, Sudan, and Ethiopia. Russell was an intriguing choice for a goodwill ambassadorship because he had a self-acknowledged reputation ...

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1. The Showcase African American: Paul Robeson, Jackie Robinson, and the Politics of Cold War Prosperity and Repression

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pp. 13-40

Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis convened a historic meeting at the Hotel Roosevelt on December 3, 1943, between the Major League Baseball club owners and the publishers of eight leading African American newspapers. Heretofore, African American newspapers had waged an unsuccessful campaign to force Major League Baseball ...

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2. “Spreading the Gospel of Basketball”: The Harlem Globetrotters, the State Department, and the Minstrel Tradition, 1945–54

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pp. 41-74

James Michener, the noted Pulitzer Prize–winning author, was an acclaimed writer whose work reflected his conviction that writers should commit themselves to addressing social issues because they were the “conscience” of the nation. To that end, in his 1975 nonfiction work Sports in America, ...

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3. Playing Politics: The Formation of the U.S. Cold War–Era Athletic Foreign Policy

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pp. 75-102

With two of its best players sidelined with injuries, the team representing the United States lost to the Soviet Union—62 to 37—on January 28 before twenty-four thousand fans at the 1959 World Basketball Tournament in Santiago, Chile. After five minutes of play, the score was tied, 4–4. ...

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4. “The Good Negroes”: Propaganda and the Racial Crisis

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pp. 103-132

In 1956 the State Department sent the University of San Francisco Dons men’s basketball team on a summertime tour of Latin America. At the time of the tour, the Dons had won fifty-five consecutive games and had amassed an incredible 57–1 record on the way to back-to-back NCAA championships. ...

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5. Black Power: International Politics and the Revolt of the Black Athlete

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pp. 133-166

There were several unsuccessful proposed efforts to organize African American athletes to boycott the Olympic Games because of the persistence of racial discrimination. The outspoken African American activist Dick Gregory in 1963 unsuccessfully proposed a boycott of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. ...

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pp. 167-170

The use of sport as a tool of U.S. foreign policy did not end after the Mexico City Olympic protests. The United States as well as other global powers continued to utilize sport as a means to solidify friendships, antagonize rivals, and advance claims about the viability of their political, social, and economic systems. ...


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pp. 171-190


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pp. 191-200


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pp. 201-209

E-ISBN-13: 9780252094293
Print-ISBN-13: 9780252037177

Page Count: 264
Publication Year: 2012

Series Title: Sport and Society
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OCLC Number: 815823823
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Globetrotting

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • African Americans -- Sports -- History.
  • Sports -- United States -- History.
  • African American athletes -- Social conditions.
  • Racism in sports -- United States.
  • Discrimination in sports -- United States.
  • Cold War -- Influence.
  • United States -- Politics and government -- 1945-1989.
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