The National Archives Helps Uncover the Great Legend of American Sports

“Why should a man who tries to do what his audience expect of him and pay for it, be the object of vile abuse, all because of the color of his skin?

“Isn’t… human instinct validating itself? Pull back the veil of civilization and you will find that the human race is morally equal. We have advanced in science admirably, but morally, very little, whatsoever. We must all cultivate a spirit of fair play.”

so wrote The first black man allowed to fight for (and win) the World Heavyweight Championship, Jack Johnson. Circa 1921. On lined notepads. in manuscript. With a pencil.

It’s one page of his handwritten autobiography, now yellow-brown, some of which the National Archives revealed last Friday along with countless other artifacts — like the blue jacket former President George W. Bush wore when he threw first pitch afterward. . 9/11 – in Her first ever sports show.

But what caught my eye were elements that reminded — as Johnson hoped — how sport was, and often still is, a contested territory for the egalitarian ideals we defend to embody: meritocracy, justice, inclusivity, and equality. The same problems we see all these years later have manifested in things like NFL coach Brian Flores discrimination suit Against the league, women’s football players Having to wrestle for the fair world cup prize moneyOr, of course, the denial of Colin Kaepernick. This is why sport is the perfect petri dish for protest and social change.

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For example, shown in “All American: The Power of Sports” is a picture of an all-black Army soccer team from 1926. They were separated from the service academy white soccer players, who were gold-plated during the 1920s by a book Sports like Grantland Rice, which made that time the golden age of sports.

There is a picture of Japanese women playing baseball in the eastern Sierra Nevada internment camp in California, one of the ten places where the US government imprisoned the Japanese living here during World War II. The women were photographed appearing, if you can imagine, happy.

There is a 1944 letter from Black Army Lieutenant Jack Robinson about a white bus driver asking him to move from a seat next to a woman the bus driver mistakenly thought was white. This led to the lieutenant, who was a famous UCLA athlete who became the first black Major League baseball player in 60 years, to be tried in a court martial for disobedience. Robinson wrote on unlined paper bearing the letterhead of McCluskey General Hospital, Temple, Texas, to the Civilian Assistant to the Secretary of War.

The curator of the show, Alice Camps, admitted that she is not a fan of rabid sports. She said that what prompted her to design the show was her interest in studying national identity.

“I was really fascinated by the way sports were used in the late 19th century, early 20th century, as an almost mandatory method for creating good citizens in schools and in military training grounds, because of the values ​​that sports teach,” Camps explained. And you can see that in some of the publicity as well. Like, there’s a poster on the show that says, “This is America.”

And another poster from the soldier. Joe Louis, who followed Johnson as the black heavyweight champion of the world, used to rally black men worried about joining a separate army again in another World War campaign.

“Government, along with major professional sports franchises, college athletics, and USA Olympic sports, has intentionally conveyed certain messages and images in a coordinated effort to shape cultural attitudes about race, gender, and masculinity,” said David retired sports historian at George Mason University. Wiggins, one of several researchers who consulted the archive, wrote in an email, “As well as appropriate concepts of war, patriotism, and being a ‘good American’.”

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In fact, the collection was not left out from dusty attics in small towns or from souvenir collectors. Most of it came from government warehouses. War Transport Authority. Presidential Libraries. Minister of War. Bureau of Prisons, where Johnson’s letter from his time in Leavenworth was presented after he was Unjustly convicted of violating Mann’s law, also known as the White Slave Trade Act of 1910. It was a law that was passed with the goal of harassing black men like Johnson who dared to have relations with white women. These men were accused of transporting white women across state lines into prostitution.

“There have been situations where sport has been used to try to control the behavior of certain groups, or to develop certain traits,” Camps explained. “But then these groups were able to somehow change that and use the sport to meet their own needs and express their identity and strength.”

She found in the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which among other things oversaw the boarding schools that Native American children were forced to attend in an attempt to strip them of their culture, were letters from one of its most famous subjects, the unprepared athlete Jim Thorpe. In some cases, he demanded his salary from a contract he signed, which, like many treaties that Indigenous peoples signed with the federal government, have not fulfilled. Also shown: The gold medals awarded by the International Olympic Committee to the Thorpe family in the early 1980s to replace the pair stripped of it He had won in 1912. The committee then said he had violated amateur rules by playing minor league baseball in the summer. Many believed that he had suffered the humiliation of being Indian.

“Apart from their hardships and appalling mistreatment at the hands of the government, these people can exercise some agency and realize a much-needed sense of community and friendship by participating in sporting and recreational activities,” Wiggins wrote. “It was a way for these people to try to maintain a sense of cultural identity while there were attempts to strip them of their dignity and, in some cases, their entire lifestyle.”

Indeed, what this exhibition reveals is as much as it reveals the myths of sports as pillars of pluralistic democracy.