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  • Globetrotting: African American Athletes and Cold War Politics by Damion L. Thomas
  • Michael T. Wood
Thomas, Damion L. Globetrotting: African American Athletes and Cold War Politics. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012. Pp. 232. Acknowledgments, bibliography, and index. $60.00 hb.

In Globetrotting, Damion L. Thomas examines the participation of African-American athletes in the Cold War, as both tools of U.S. foreign policy and as active political agents. From the late 1940s to the late 1960s, the U.S. State Department organized and supported goodwill tours by African-American athletes as a means to counter Soviet propaganda about domestic race relations. These athletes served as symbols of achievement because they represented the opportunities available for African Americans through the "American way of life." Over his five chapters, Thomas argues that the success of African-American athletes did not translate to broader improvement in the African-American community and this disconnect between rhetoric and realty created a "contested terrain" in the 1960s.

Thomas' first chapter contrasts positions taken by Paul Robeson and Jackie Robinson and how they elevated African-American athletes into the national Cold War discourse in 1949. Robeson made critical comments about race relations in the United States at the Paris World Peace Conference. His statements drew condemnations from the media and politicians. Robinson appeared in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) later in the year. Instead of denouncing Robeson's comments, Robinson endorsed cooperation within the Cold War consensus, which emphasized the gradual improvement of race relations under the American capitalist system. The popularity of Robinson's position led the U.S. government to use it as the basis for organizing and supporting goodwill tours by African-American athletes.

The second chapter focuses on the Harlem Globetrotters and their international tours in the early 1950s. The State Department encouraged them to take goodwill tours as a means of projecting the image of an all-black basketball team succeeding at the highest level of the sport. Despite the team's achievements, Thomas contends that the Globetrotters' famed showmanship played to negative racial stereotypes of African Americans, such as laziness and mischievousness, in a similar way as minstrel shows and trickster tales. Although the Globetrotters served as an example of an African-American team thriving within the American capitalist system, they faced discrimination and their viability as a team and overall prestige diminished with the integration of the National Basketball Association (NBA).

In the third chapter, Thomas focuses on the institutionalization of sports in U.S. Cold War foreign policy during the Eisenhower Administration. Responding to the Soviet athletic and cultural offensive in the mid 1950s, the U.S. created a "multifaceted propaganda program" that put greater importance on U.S. participation (and winning) international athletic contests, hosting foreign athletes in the United States, and promoting goodwill tours. With the passage of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, the role of African-American athletes expanded beyond individual competitions to being on integrated teams during international contests. [End Page 514]

The last two chapters show the shift that occurs after the Brown decision from African-American athletes conforming to the Cold War consensus to the rejection of official portrayals of U.S. race relations and the use of an international stage for public protest. In the fourth chapter, Thomas presents the sharp contrast between the messages presented on goodwill tours in 1957 and the resistance to school integration in Little Rock, Arkansas. This trend continues through the 1960s with violent protests and resistance to integration in the South undermined propaganda efforts.

The final chapter explores the Black Power movement, identity politics, and African-American athletes in the mid-to-late 1960s. Thomas focuses on the formation and activities of the Olympic Committee for Human Rights (OCHR). Led by Harry Edwards at San José State University and heavily influenced by the Black Power movement, the OCHR formed in October of 1967 with the goal of extending the political power of African-American athletes. Even though the OCHR did not boycott the 1968 Olympic games in Mexico City, African-American athletes, most notably Tommie Smith and John Carlos, made silent protests during the medal ceremonies...


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