Samuel Gale

  • Fellowship year:2016-2017
  • University: University of Wisconsin- Madison
  • Dissertation Topic/Category: United States
  • Dissertation Title: It's a Press Victory: The African American Press' Coverage of Black Sports and the Struggle for Racial Equality
  • My dissertation, "It's a Press Victory: The African American Press' Coverage of Black Sports and the Struggle for Racial Equality," challenges scholars to reevaluate the role African American journalists played in shaping the intellectual and idealogical parameters of struggles for racial equality in American popular culture. The first comparative study of reporting in black newspapers between the mid-1920s and the mid-1950s, it investigates how black journalists' coverage of four key moments in American sports shed light on the potential for achieving racial equality through athletic competition, as well as the tremendous racial barriers that remained firmly entrenched in the mainstream sports world. Those four events are Jesse Owens' career during and after the 1936 Olympics; Joe Louis' boxing matches against German Max Schmeling in 1936 and 1938; the 1930s struggle to increae opportunities for black players in college football; and the battle to desegregate Major League Baseball.
    A comparative analysis of black journalists' coverage of these four events illuminatess conflicting and contradictory opinions journalists held about how African Americans should act when breaking down each sport's racial barriers. These tensions reflected an ideological divide between supporters of liberal integrationism and economic nationalism as African Americans fought for equality in political, economic, and cultural life. These black athletes, moreover, were an anomaly within the era's racial and social hierarchy given their ability to outperform and occasionally humiliate white athletes while captivating white sports fans. This situation, I argue, put black athletes, and the journalists who covered them, in a precarious position. Many black sportswriters responded by scrutinizing the off-field behaviors of Owens, Louis, and Robinson as much as they celebrated their athletic feats; yet they held each to a different set of standards regarding their behavior. Their criticisms, I argue, reflected intense internal debate among journalists over how to best appease a white mainstream audience still uncomfortable with black participation in mainstream sports. Ultimately, many journalists championed a politics of respectability that posited that black athletes neede to be humble, passive, upstanding gentlemen in order to be accepted by whites; this attitude prefigured debates among African American leaders about acceptable forms of black masculinity for its political and cultural icons in the 1950s and 1960s. It also illuminated tensions among African Americans between protest and the politics of respectability, and between individual and collective success in the struggle for racial equality.