The United States celebrates Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in January of each year, honoring the birth of the influential civil rights leader who promoted positive social change through nonviolent means. In Dr. King’s honor, TeamNames.net takes a moment to reflect on some African-American athletes who have gone beyond their brilliant athletic careers and also brought positive social change of their own to the world.
Muhammad Ali / Cassius Clay
Someone stole 12-year-old Clay’s bicycle in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1954 and sparked the creation of the greatest and most-recognized boxer of all time. That theft prompted an angry Clay to seek out a police officer, Joe Martin, in a local gym, and the rest is history: the gold medal in the 1960 Olympics, the Thrilla in Manila, the Rumble in the Jungle, and so much more.
Beyond his boxing career, though, and even as he celebrates his 70th year of life, Ali is most proud of his work as a humanitarian, providing food and medical supplies to developing nations around the world, helping the hungry in the U.S., funding research to battle Parkinson’s Disease, and many other benevolent endeavors.
Read more about Ali here.
Brown is best known for his outstanding Hall of Fame NFL career with the Cleveland Browns from 1957-1965, but he also excelled at lacrosse at Syracuse University and is a member of the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame as well as the College Football Hall of Fame. In addition to football and lacrosse, he played basketball and ran track for the Orange, and he was a talented boxer and baseball player.
In 1988, Brown founded the Amer-I-Can Program to “help enable individuals to meet their academic potential, to conform their behavior to acceptable society standards, and to improve the quality of their lives by equipping them with the critical life management skills to confidently and successfully contribute to society.”
The Buckeye Bullet is most famous for his four gold medals in track and field in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin as Adolf Hitler looked on and saw his propaganda of Aryan supremacy go up in smoke. But Owens’ greatest athletic accomplishment was actually a year earlier when, as a member of the Ohio State track team, he set three world records and tied a fourth in a span of 45 minutes at the Big Ten meet in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
The Jesse Owens Foundation provides financial support for attendance at Ohio State University for those disadvantaged kids who show the promise of future leadership and excellence in spite of obstacles that they have overcome.
Read more about Owens here.
Imagine a professional baseball world without Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Bob Gibson, Reggie Jackson, Rickey Henderson, Ken Griffey Jr., and so many more great African-American players. That’s exactly what we would have without Robinson breaking the color barrier in MLB in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers. His impact on professional baseball, as well as his Hall of Fame career, was so profound that no one will ever wear his No. 42 again after New York Yankees pitcher Mariano Rivera retires.
The Jackie Robinson Foundation provides four-year college scholarships and many other educational services—to the tune of $3.4 million in 2010-11 academic year—to disadvantaged youth of color.
Read more about Robinson here.
His personal issues aside, Woods has dominated golf courses and sports headlines for years. Dr. King would be most proud, however, of the Tiger Woods Foundation that Woods and his father, the late Earl Woods, established in 1996 to provide college access to underserved youth. Between the Tiger Woods Learning Center in California and the $2 million in scholarships, Woods has promoted the education and fitness of countless kids of all races.
We tip our hat to these ground-breaking African-American athletes—and many more—who not only dazzled the world with their athletic prowess, but also seek to make it a better place in the spirit of Dr. King.