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How Sports Played a Role in the Civil Rights Movement

The role sports has played in America's civil rights struggle, especially with black athletes, has been well documented.

For many the movement started with Jackie Robinson crossing the color line in baseball. But two other athletes were in Austin Wednesday to share their perspectives at the LBJ Library's Civil Rights Summit.

Jim Brown is often called the greatest running back in the history of pro football. But he was never the most popular player. He told the crowd in Austin he attributes that to his role in pushing for civil rights and equality for himself and other black athletes.

"It was told to me that I could be loved and popular if I could bow down and do a little dance. I don't know if y'all know what that means. But I said, I don't really dance," Brown said.

Brown said standing up and advocating for any and all benefits that any other American citizen should have received was a simple choice.

"So freedom, equality and justice is what I pursued. And I pursued it at all costs. Because nothing else would substitute for that, no trophy, no form of popularity."

Brown was joined on stage by NBA legend Bill Russell. Along with 11 world championships, Russell was also the first black coach in U.S. major league sports when he took over as player/coach of the Boston Celtics in 1966.

He and Brown used their celebrity status to try to help others in the black community improve their economic standing. Russell also pointed out similarities between early black pro athletes and today's small but growing population of outed gay athletes.

"It seems to me, it may not be a good correlation, but a lot of questions they ask about gay athletes, were essentially the same questions they used to ask about us, the black athletes," Russell said.

Russell and Brown said for them, the question of any athlete, gay, straight, minority or white, is whether or not they can play.

Ben Philpott is the Managing Editor for KUT. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @BenPhilpottKUT.
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