04/10/2014 04:39 pm ET Updated Jun 10, 2014

If It Weren't for a Handful of Sports Figures, America Would Not Have Integrated as It Did

Sports and civil rights have long been intertwined. In America, from the end of the Civil War through the 1960s, there was no more pressing political issue than civil rights. As filmmaker Ken Burns noted "The Great Sub-Theme in American life has always been race." Sports helped provide the opportunity to change.

This year we begin the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts of 1964 and 1965. These acts, passed through much force of will by President Lyndon B. Johnson, were inspired by events of the prior 100 years but certainly by many terrible days in 1963. In the fall of 1963 came the bombing of a small church in Birmingham, Ala., that murdered four schoolgirls. In the riots that followed, additional killings occurred making it the most deadly day in the civil rights era.

The bombing galvanized the public like no other atrocious act of hatred against blacks had previously. At the scene shortly thereafter to support the black community appeared Jackie Robinson, who had integrated baseball 16 years before, and Floyd Patterson, a highly noted black boxer. Their stature was such with both white and black Americans that they came to the scene personally to lend support. Photographs of them inspecting the damage at the bombing site made the front pages of newspapers across America the next day.

Why were a boxer and a baseball player of such consequence? The answer lies in the tortured history of the treatment of African Americans dating back to the late 1800s.

Opportunities for any job above menial labor for blacks for decades after the end of Reconstruction were few and far between. Jim Crow ruled the day. Sports was one of the few ways that Jim Crow could be overcome.

One can make the case that the civil rights movement began almost 30 years before Birmingham as Americans, black and white, cheered for their first black heroes, Jesse Owens and Joe Louis. Owens walked into Hitler's 1936 Berlin Olympics and ran through with four gold medals, and in the process embarrassed Hitler. Louis, for his part, soundly thrashed Hitler's prize boxer, Max Schmeling, in 1938. The celebration of Olympic heroes and American athletes of all colors is common enough today. But in the 1930s, America was little better in its treatment of blacks than it was prior to World War I. Thus, there was little opportunity for blacks to make any favorable impression on, or be embraced or accepted by, white America except through sports.

Owens and Louis gained more of that acceptance than any black man prior to them and thereby made easier the path to black acceptance generally, because they were accomplished sports figures.

Civil rights progress stalled during World War II until Jackie Robinson became the first black player to play in major league baseball in 1947. Baseball was by far America's favorite sport at the time. In the process, he became, in the words of one, "a one-man civil rights effort," playing on fields no longer segregated, beside whites who in many cases had never spoken a civil word to a black, in front of fans who had never seen blacks and whites together. As a noted sociologist stated in the 1940s, blacks "had to get publicity" to advance their cause; this was the "highest strategic importance." Robinson delivered that publicity every day for several months in that first summer and for the next several summers. Martin Luther King Jr., for his part, acknowledged that he could never have done what he did without Jackie Robinson's courageous actions.

Black athletes such as Arthur Ashe, Bill Russell and Jim Brown, through accomplishments and determined outspokenness, became must-see and must-hear leaders of the civil rights movement, respected for their talents and grudgingly respected for their views. But make no mistake: It was sports that gave them their platform and thus their success as civil rights leaders, and they along with their successors on the fields and on the courts dragged, pulled and pushed America forward to integration. Near the end of the 1960s, Tommie Smith and John Carlos stood on the world stage with fists held high at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics and almost single-handedly forced America to confront itself and its policies of racial exclusion.

It was not a coincidence that desegregation in America accelerated as our fields of sport integrated. Daily and consistent interaction begat Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and Lebron James as African American and worldwide heroes. As we have supported and accepted them, they have helped us to become a society where they are only sports figures, not black sports figures, and we are all and only Americans.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and The University of Texas at Austin, in recognition of the Civil Rights Summit -- honoring the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act -- held at the LBJ Presidential Library. To see all the other posts in the series, read here. For more information about the Civil Rights Summit, read here.