At one point in the recent history of the United States, it didn't take much for a Black athlete to get noticed by the FBI. Athletes like Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith, and John Carlos had FBI files for standing against racism when segregation and subjugation were the norm.
It turns out a Black athlete didn't actually have to do much to be considered a potential threat back then. All he had to do was be successful. Here are the stories of five Black athletes who were targeted by the FBI — some without ever knowing it.
In 1908, Jack Johnson became the world's first African American boxing champion, which made him a clear a target of all-white law enforcement. His crime? Being Black, better at boxing than literally everyone else, and daring to publicly date white women. Interracial relationships were taboo at the time, and Johnson's penchant for flaunting his relationships with white women caught the eye of law enforcement.
The Department of Justice's Bureau of Investigation, which was the FBI before the FBI existed, used the Mann Act to persecute Johnson. The Mann Act forbade the transport of women over state lines for "immoral purposes," and was often used to persecute Black men who engaged in relationships with white women. Johnson was involved with Lucille Cameron, a white woman who ran the desegregated restaurant and nightclub he owned in Harlem.
Johnson was arrested in October 1912, several months before he and Lucille married, for violating the Mann Act. However, the case against Johnson fell apart almost immediately, since Lucille refused to cooperate with law enforcement. That didn't stop the Bureau of Investigations, which devoted enormous manpower to finding another way to nail Johnson on the Mann Act. They found it in Belle Schreiber, an alleged prostitute who had been with Johnson in 1909 and 1910. Even though that was before the Mann Act was passed, Johnson was arrested. He was convicted in under two hours by an all-white jury in 1913, and sentenced to one year and one day in prison.
To avoid serving time, Johnson skipped bail and fled to France with Lucille. After World War I broke out, making it impossible for him to find work as a boxer, they went to South America. Johnson tried to return to the U.S. in 1915, but was denied a passport. He and Lucille spent five more years abroad, living in Spain and Mexico, before he agreed to surrender to the U.S. government and serve his time.
In 2018, 105 years after Johnson was convicted and 72 years after his death, President Donald Trump granted him a posthumous pardon.
At the 1936 Summer Olympics, trailblazer Jesse Owens accomplished a feat that no one else ever had: he won four gold medals, becoming one of the best remembered Olympians of all time.
The Berlin Olympic Games was a controversial event. Hosted by Adolf Hitler, it was meant to be propaganda for Nazi Germany. American athletes were sharply divided on attending, though they eventually did. Owens was one of 18 Black athletes on the team. During a games that was supposed to be a showcase for Hitler's Aryan ideal, Owens walked away as the first person to ever win four gold medals at a single games.
After just two days of competition, Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi minister of propaganda and one of Hitler's closest associates, was disgusted at the success of Owens and other Black people at the Olympics, writing in his diary, "We Germans won a gold medal, the Americans three, of which two were Negroes. That is a disgrace. White people should be ashamed of themselves."
Metaphorically spitting in the face of Adolf Hitler didn't earn Owens a pass from J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI's notoriously racist longtime director. Owens was the target of a 1956 investigation conducted by the Bureau to determine whether Owens was "a loyal American." The investigation was personally ordered by Hoover, who was suspicious that Owens was involved in "subversive" activities due to his work with anti-racist groups, which Hoover considered to be un-American. The FBI checked his credit, monitored his bank accounts, investigated his background and his sex life, and did the same to his wife, his parents, his three daughters, and his siblings.
The FBI found no evidence that Owens was involved in anything "subversive," but the investigation wasn't uncovered until the Arizona Republic published an article about the probe in 1985, five years after Owens' death. His widow, Ruth Owens, told the Los Angeles Times that she was stunned when she learned about it.
“Oh, my God,” said a shocked Ruth Owens when asked about the investigation. “My husband is resting in his grave, so he can’t speak for himself. But I followed him all over, and I know he was loyal to America. He loved his family and his country.
“Jesse was a good man. He always tried to do what was right. But he went to his grave being dogged. His crime was that he was black.”
Bill Russell, a Black sports pioneer and one of the greatest basketball players of all time, experienced racism every day as a member of the Boston Celtics. When he found out years after his playing career ended that he had an FBI file, he wasn't surprised.
In 1987, Russell's daughter Karen wrote a story called "Growing Up With Privilege and Prejudice" for the New York Times Magazine after receiving her law degree from Harvard. In that story, she revealed that her father had an FBI file which Russell requested after Congress passed the Freedom of Information Act. In the file, Russell was constantly referred to as "an arrogant Negro who won't sign autographs for white children."
It's true that Russell wouldn't sign autographs; according to Karen he preferred to shake hands and exchange a personal greeting so the person felt like they were really connecting with him. Karen didn't think it was related to anyone's race, but it's not hard to see why the FBI would have felt threatened by a man like Russell. He lived his life as an unapologetic Black man who had money, privilege, and influence, and he never backed down or compromised his values.
Karen shared the perfect example of the type of man her father is, and why his determination to stand up to the everyday indignities of racism rankled many people and organizations like the FBI.
Every time the Celtics went out on the road, vandals would come and tip over our garbage cans. My father went to the police station to complain. The police told him that raccoons were responsible, so he asked where he could apply for a gun permit. The raccoons never came back.
Prominent Black men were FBI targets in the 1960s, and Wilt Chamberlain, the NBA's most prolific scorer at that time, caught the attention of the FBI. They investigated him for potential game-fixing while he was with the Philadelphia 76ers and Los Angeles Lakers from 1966-1969, with informants claiming that Chamberlain threw games. Informants also claimed that Chamberlain only bet on his own team, and always to win, which is the complete opposite of throwing games to affect the betting outcome.
With such wildly conflicting claims, it's no surprise that the FBI found zero evidence that Chamberlain ever threw a game or even bet on basketball at all while he was a player. The FBI file, originally obtained by the Philadelphia Daily News in 2000, contains around 24 documents that feature mostly rumors, innuendo, and secondhand reports. Chamberlain's family and friends backed up his innocence when they spoke to the Associated Press in 2000.
"He was just way too honest to do that," Chamberlain's younger sister, Barbara Lewis, said.
Vince Miller, a lifelong friend of Chamberlain's who was his roommate in the late 1960s, told the AP that while Wilt loved to gamble, he never knew him to gamble on basketball.
If you're not convinced yet that the FBI's investigation was most likely a witch hunt for their own purposes, this piece of info should help: at no point did the FBI share any of their investigation with the NBA. Former NBA senior vice president Brian McIntyre told the AP that the NBA was completely unaware of any investigation and had no information about claims that Chamberlain had allegedly been gambling on basketball.
Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier in 1947, which spurred the ire of racists across the county, but his fight against racial discrimination outside of baseball is what his FBI file is all about. While it doesn't appear that Robinson was ever the target of a specific FBI investigation, his file is an extensive catalog of his politics, such as his mentions in political publications and his appearances or statements in support of candidates or causes.
The earliest entries in his file are concerned with whether Robinson was a communist. Robinson was called to testify in front of congress at a "hearing regarding the communist infiltration of minority groups" in 1949, and he gave an impassioned speech about racism — which, due to the demonization of communism, was being characterized as an issue "invented" by communists. Robinson vehemently disagreed, saying "Negroes were stirred up long before there was a Communist Party, and they'll stay stirred up long after the Party has disappeared — unless Jim Crow has disappeared by then as well."
However, the majority of Robinson's file concerns his support of anti-racist causes, like ending housing discrimination in Levittown, New York, and his involvement with the NAACP. The FBI logged hundreds of Robinson's appearances at marches, rallies, and any time he appeared on behalf of the NAACP. His file also includes a list of every article from 1945 to 1964 that mentions Robinson in connection to baseball integration, school integration, housing integration, civil rights, the NAACP, the KKK, and the March on Washington. Robinson's involvement with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was also monitored, and the FBI took an interest in his defense of the Black Panthers in the late 1960s.
The FBI never accused Robinson of anything. His file, like those of Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, Joe Louis, and others, exists simply because the FBI decided to keep tabs on prominent Black athletes who threatened the status quo by using their platform to fight racism.
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