Two Athletes Who Stood Up Against Racism

by Rafael Medoff

Dr. Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies (, in Washington, D.C.

Carlton “Cookie” Gilchrist is not a name many people today remember, except among aficionados of the old American Football League. But Gilchrist’s passing last week, just days before Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, shines a spotlight on athletes who have stood up against racism–and how the sports world has responded.

A Pittsburgh native, Gilchrist began his professional football career in Canada in 1954, where he was an all-star on both offense and defense, a feat that is unheard-of today. In 1962, he joined the Buffalo Bills of the new American Football League, excelling both as a running back and kicker. He was an all-pro four years in a row, but it was the January 1965 all-star game that made history beyond the gridiron.

That game was scheduled to take place in New Orleans, a city with a troubled racial history. When Gilchrist and the twenty other African-American athletes on the all-star team arrived at the airport, most taxi drivers refused to serve them; others dropped them off miles from their hotel. That evening, in the city’s French Quarter, they were insulted by passersby and denied entrance to restaurants and clubs. The fact that the landmark federal Civil Rights Act had been enacted just six months earlier made their treatment especially galling.

The African-American players gathered at their hotel that night to debate how to respond. Gilchrist was one of the most vocal in urging a boycott of the game, and a majority agreed with him. Several white players, notably Ron Mix of the San Diego Chargers, announced that they, too, would not play in New Orleans. Despite the pressure of having to deal with the crisis on the eve of the game, the AFL’s leaders responded as decent people should: they switched cities. Houston became that year’s last-minute host.

In 1983, the Canadian Football Hall of Fame sought to induct Gilchrist. He refused –the only nominee ever to turn down the honor– citing racism in the Canadian football league from which he had suffered in the 1950s. Perhaps the hall of fame’s directors felt slighted when Gilchrist snubbed them. Or perhaps they should have forthrightly addressed the grievances he raised. Either way, that was 28 years ago. There’s no excuse for the fact that the web site of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame today makes no mention of Cookie Gilchrist–not his achievements in Canadian football in the 1950s, not his protest in 1983, not even a simple obituary.

A similar problem arises with regard to the United States Olympic Committee’s treatment of an Olympian who stood up against bigotry.

When the winter Olympic games of 1936 opened in Nazi Germany 75 years ago, one American athlete was missing. Jack Shea, who had won two gold medals in speedskating four years earlier and was considered a shoo-in for the 1936 U.S. team, announced that he was boycotting the games because of the Nazis’ persecution of German Jews.

When Shea was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 2005, the official announcements by the U.S. Olympic Committee and the U.S. Speedskating team stated only that Shea “chose not to defend his Olympic titles at the 1936 Winter Games in Germany,” without explaining why. To this day, their web sites give only partial and misleading information about Shea’s action against the Nazis. And the Lake Placid Olympic Museum, which likewise inducted Shea into its hall of fame, makes no mention at all of his 1936 boycott.

Cookie Gilchrist and Jack Shea bravely stood up for humanitarian principles, even though they knew that doing so could endanger their athletic careers. Their courage should be recognized and remembered at every opportunity, so that young people today will look to them as role models, not only because of the touchdowns they scored and the races they won, but also because of their efforts to make this world a better place. By honoring them, we also honor the life and legacy of Reverend King.

January 2011