Barack Obama and Jack Johnson More in Common Than You Think


Both Barack Obama and Jack Johnson held positions no one thought a Black man would ever hold in this country. They were both cheered and vilified for it.

While it’s tempting to look at Barack Obama’s eight years as President of the United States through the eyes of Jackie Robinson, viewing them through the eyes of Jack Johnson might be more accurate.

By Chris Murray

For the Chris Murray Report and the Philadelphia Sunday Sun

One of the most compelling and important African-American “firsts” in America’s history ended last week when Donald Trump became the 45th President of the United States.

Barack Obama left the White House and went back into private life after an often-tumultuous eight years as the leader of the free world. In his two terms as President, Obama managed to save America from a depression through his economic stimulus plan and helped 20 million people get health insurance through the Affordable Care Act.

But while the Obama Presidency had some great moments, what many will remember, and what some will attribute to the Rise of Trump, will be the opposition he faced, much of which was based in racism.

From the Trump-championed “Birther” movement and the social media memes that often accompanied it, to Congressman Joe Walsh shouting “You lie!” during the first State of the Union Address and other random acts of disrespect, Obama’s presence in the White House seemed to bring out the worst in a lot of Americans.

When Obama assumed the office, many compared his ascension to that of Jackie Robinson integrating Major League Baseball and I guess that makes sense on some level. During his first season in the league, Robinson faced all kinds of racist taunts from fans and was told not to fight back by Brooklyn Dodgers’ management.

But while the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. referred to Robinson as “the first freedom rider,” and the comparison between he and Obama works on some level, I submit that there may be a better sports-related analogy we can apply here, and that’s the rise and reign of Jack Johnson, the first African American boxer to become world heavyweight champion.

There’s a lot of commonality to their circumstances.

At the top of the 20th century when Johnson was making his push toward history, it was thought impossible for a Black man to attain boxing’s most prestigious prize. At a time when the concepts of Social Darwinism and Manifest Destiny relegated people of color as inferior in the early 1900s, the heavyweight championship was seen as the private domain of white men.

When he defeated Tommy Burns to become the first Black man to win the heavyweight belt, Johnson turned that notion on it’s head and with it the prevailing notion of White supremacy. 

The whites who ran boxing at the time were so invested in not recognizing Johnson as the heavyweight champion that they initiated a search for a “Great White Hope” that they hoped would defeat him. Even as Johnson continued to mow down these “Great White Hopes”, the news media that referred to him as “the playful Ethiopian” while portraying him as an “ape” or an African tribesman with exaggerated features joined fans in refusing to recognize Johnson as champion.

When Jim Jeffries, the man that White fans and the mainstream media did recognize as heavyweight champion, got into the ring with Johnson on July 10th, 1910, it was seen as not only the “Battle of the Century”, but as the fight designed to Make Boxing Great Again.

When Johnson’s win led to race riots, American newspapers reinforced White anger at the outcome including an editorial in the Los Angeles Times that warned African-Americans to be aware of their place in society:

“You are just the same member of society today you were last week. … You are on no higher plane, deserve no new consideration, and will get none … No man will think a bit higher of you because your complexion is the same as that of the victor at Reno.”

Johnson didn’t get that message. His self-confidence allowed him to flaunt his relationships with White women at a time when doing so would get you killed.

An aging Johnson finally lost his title to Jess Willard under a sweltering sun in Havana, Cuba in 1915 when he was knocked out in the 26th round.  Of course, the New York Times proclaimed Willard’s victory as restoring “pugilistic supremacy to the white race.”  It would be another 22 years before an African-American would fight for the heavyweight title.

Like Johnson 100 years earlier, Barack Obama broke through a barrier that no one thought a Black man ever would. When Obama began his trek to the White House, few African-Americans gave him a chance, thinking he would go the way of Shirley Chisholm, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. But Obama not only won the Democratic nomination, he easily won the presidency over Republican Sen. John McCain.

Conservatives in Congress got together the night Obama was inaugurated and promised to do all they could to block anything the new president proposed. In a meeting of top GOP luminaries on the night of Obama’s inauguration, they came up with a plan to fight the new president on everything.

The Republicans did it to the point that it exceeded the bounds of decorum at times.

While Obama was a family man who was devoted to his wife and family, he and First Lady Michelle Obama were often the recipients of the most racist vitriol on social media. Conservative media outlets like Fox News often slammed Michelle Obama for daring to point out racism in American society, as she did in a 2015 speech at Tuskegee University.

When Obama was re-elected in 2012, Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly loudly proclaimed that “traditional America” was over and the White people were a minority because of America’s changing demographics. Of course, traditional America translates into a White America where racial minorities, especially African-Americans, were invisible and knew their place.   

It was that energy that the Trump campaign managed to tap into through portraying Mexicans as rapists, Muslims as terrorists and African-Americans as a threat to law and order because of groups like Black Lives Matter.

In 2017, African-Americans, even with all the victories of the Civil Rights Movement, see themselves in the same perilous situation as they were in the early 20th century.

Respect Difference: Sam’s Kiss is a Defiant Message Against Bigotry

By Chris Murray
For the Chris Murray Report and the Philadelphia Sunday Sun

After being picked in the seventh round of the 2014 NFL Draft, 2013 Southeastern Conference Player of the Year, Michael Sam shares a kiss with his lover, Vito Commisano on camera. The video caused a social firestorm.

After being picked in the seventh round of the 2014 NFL Draft, 2013 Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year, Michael Sam shares a kiss with his lover, Vito Commisano on camera. The video caused a social media firestorm.

PHILADELPHIA—In a television special on NBC in 1968, Harry Belafonte and white British pop singer Petula Clark performed an anti-war duet—“Path to Glory”.
During the course of the performance, Clark touched Belafonte’s arm.

A white account executive from Chrysler, the sponsor of the show, demanded that the segment be deleted from the special before it aired not only because it would offend viewers from the South, but because it offended the account executive’s racial sensibilities as well. He wanted it replaced with video that showed Belafonte and Clark performing the song, but standing apart.

But Clark and her husband, the executive producer of the show, refused to allow the sentiments of the Chrysler executive or Southern viewers to make them change the segment.

It was the first time a Black man and a white woman touched one another on national television.

Fast forward to the 2014 NFL Draft.

University of Missouri star defensive end Michael Sam was drafted by the St. Louis Rams in the seventh round and celebrated the moment, the moment of becoming the first openly gay player to be picked in the NFL Draft, by kissing his boyfriend, Vito Cammisano, on camera.

Social media, as it is wont to do, blew up shortly afterward. While many found it historic, there was a contingent of folks, most of them male, who couldn’t get past the fact Sam, the Southeastern Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year, was kissing a man on camera.

For some of us card-carrying heterosexuals, it was a bit over the top. The reactions I saw on Facebook, Twitter, and among the people at my favorite watering hole kept bringing a line from the Gil Scott-Heron classic hit “B” Movie to mind:

“Civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights: it’s all wrong! Call in the cavalry to disrupt this perception of freedom gone wild! God damn it, first one wants freedom, then the whole damn world wants freedom! …Nostalgia…that’s we want….”

Witnessing people whine about their discomfort and display their prejudices with the pride they’d rather not see gays and lesbians express in regard to this situation made me truly understand why my gay brothers and sisters have been so fervently fighting for their right to express themselves.

American society has always had this “discomfort” with people who aren’t White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant heterosexuals. There’s this perception that you are only a true American if you’re willing to sacrifice your culture, your beliefs, and even your sexual orientation to appease the racism, sexism, and homophobia of the White men who run this society. Difference is seen as inferior in America and because it’s inferior, it must be stamped out.

Over the years, I have watched and covered the NFL Draft. When a young athlete hears his name being called, he kisses his mom and his wife or his girlfriend. It’s a happy day for that young man.

But while we tend not to look twice when a young man engages in a public display of affection with his Mom or female Significant Other, the Double Standard reared its ugly head when Sam and Cammisano kissed.

The most common reaction I saw was “Why do we have to see that?!”, which was closely followed by “Why are gay people are trying to impose their lifestyle on us?!” and my personal favorite, “What do I say to my kids?!”

Let’s keep it real, here. You were watching the NFL Draft and this happened. That’s why you saw it. Secondly, unless something has changed over the last few days and I don’t know about it, there is no law on the books that makes you have to become a homosexual. Thus, no one is forcing you to do anything.

And lastly, you tell your kids the exact same thing that you tell them when they see a man and a woman kissing: That’s what two people do when they love each other. Unless you’re like most parents, then you cover both of your ears and go “la-la-la-la-la” to avoid the question.

What disappointed me the most is that African Americans, a group of people who are among the experts in how America handles those with whom it is uncomfortable, were the ones asking the questions above.

I was even more disappointed in the straight-up lack of empathy with our gay and lesbian neighbors.

If you need any evidence of just how uncomfortable this country still is with the presence of Black people even after the Civil Rights Movement, go to Google, punch in “Barack Obama”, and catch the wave.

From being stopped by the cops stopping you for no reason, to not being able to get a cab even when dressed in a suit and tie, America shows African Americans just how uncomfortable it is with us on a daily basis.

Even when we do things to make the majority culture comfortable with us like making our kids cut their locs or straighten their hair, it doesn’t help.

That’s unacceptable to me. The idea that gay people, African-Americans or anyone has to go out of their way to appease someone’s comfort and prejudice is just wrong.

For gays and lesbians, fear of violent retribution, losing your job, and being shunned by your family kept such simple things as holding your lover’s hand in public out of reach for decades. Heck, the whole reason for the Stonewall riots, the event that began the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered Liberation Movement, was that gay and lesbian patrons were getting tired of being dragged out of the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village by New York City police for the simple act of dancing together.

But while the pre-Stonewall days are behind us in a way, the reaction to Sam’s Draft Day kiss shows that while we can tolerate two men dancing together in a dark nightclub, we still can’t handle them holding hands, kissing or any of the myriad public displays of affection that are going on between heterosexual couples right now as we speak.

From the moment he came out and forced NFL general managers to put “openly gay man” and “football player” in the same sentence, Michael Sam has been consistent in putting his happiness before society’s comfort.

And even though you may not like it, you have to respect it.

Riley Cooper and Childhood Memories of Racism in Sports

By Chris Murray

For the Philadelphia Sunday Sun and the Chris Murray Report

Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper was welcomed back  by his teammates a week after being caught on camera using a racial slur.  Photo  by Webster Riddick.

Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper was welcomed back by his teammates a week after being caught on camera using a racial slur. Photo by Webster Riddick.

PHILADLEPHIA—Watching the fallout of Riley Cooper being caught on tape using the N-word and the series of apologies he made in the aftermath was something that hit me in a very personal way.

It was yet another example of how racism is so deeply woven into the American fabric that its almost as normal as celebrating the Fourth of July.  For the record, I believe Cooper is truly remorseful for his actions.

At Eagles camp on Tuesday, Cooper’s teammates, black and white, welcomed him to their joint practice with the New England Patriots. To his credit, Cooper made no excuses and told reporters that he didn’t want his teammates to forgive him. He wanted to earn their respect.

“I told them I don’t want you to forgive me because that puts the burden on you,” Cooper said. “I want it all on me. I told them that I apologize. They can tell it was from the heart and they know I’m not that kind of person.”

Cooper’s African-American teammates said they wanted to move on from this and they welcomed Cooper back. To be honest, it’s always a good thing to forgive, but forgetting is usually the hard part. That will come in time. To that end, Cooper should be allowed to turn the corner and be judged by his actions from this point forward.

Sometimes when African-Americans form friendships with white people there’s always this weird fear that somehow something like Cooper spewing out the N-word is going to come out, especially when folks get mad at each other for whatever reason.

The last year I played organized football was in 1976 when I was about 14-years-old. I was a grossly undersized, but quick running back in the Catonsville, Md. Midget League.  I was the only Black player on my team, the Vikings.

I didn’t really care about that because this is football. The only prejudice you should have is against the guy not wearing the same jersey as you.

Our first game of the season against the Jets, I was having a good game. I nearly ran back two punts and I was running the ball well from scrimmage, averaging about four or five yards per carry.

About midway through second quarter, I witnessed something I would never forget.  On an off tackle play I got hit by the Jets defensive tackle who was this big, bulky black kid—whom I’ll call Al.  After the whistle, there was a shoving match between the two of us.

As this is going on, one of my lineman (also our middle linebacker) whom we’ll call  John-comes to my rescue and proceeds to push the Black kid off me.  Just when the refs are separating the warring factions, my teammate John yells “Fuckin, Nigger!” to Al.

I was stunned. Part of me wanted to kick John’s ass because he didn’t have the right to say that to a brother. But at the same time, John was my teammate, I needed him to block for me.

I then glanced over at Al and he had this pained look on his face as the refs ushered him back to the huddle.

I don’t think that John and I spoke to each other again for the rest of that season unless it pertained to football. I mentioned it to my mother in passing, but I don’t recall how she reacted to it.

Since I was the only Black guy on the team, I noticed that the rest of my teammates went out of their way not to say or do anything that could be perceived as offensive. But as pervasive and ingrained as racial prejudice was in those days, it was bound to come out again.

About three weeks later, we were having a practice scrimmage against the Saints. Near the end of the practice, my Vikings were on defense. The Saints had this really fast running back, Mike, who was black and was killing us on the sweep.

On the last play of the scrimmage, John, whom I mentioned earlier, was playing linebacker and I was playing free safety.  When Mike was running a sweep to his left and our right, John and I were waiting for him. John had his arms around his legs and I hit Mike up top with the most vicious hit I’ve ever delivered.

Without using my helmet, my shoulder was planted into his chest and I knocked him to the ground. When I peeled off him, I noticed that Mike was in pain and had tears in his eyes. I crushed his ass, I thought to myself.

As I walked back to the huddle, I was fired up because I hit that kid hard. For a few fleeting seconds, I felt like I was Mel Blount, Mike Curtis, Donnie Schell and Gary Fencik all rolled into one.

But the euphoria of the hit quickly receded into the evening shadow because Billy, another one of my white teammates said: “Wow, did you see how Chris hit that ni- ,.”

Before he could get out the “igger” part, my teammates descended upon and told him to pipe down.  Ironically, it was John, who used the N-word earlier in the season, leading the way to tell our teammate not to use that word in front of me.

As I think about it, I just shake my head.

Those incidents from my youth made it difficult for me to have friendships with white people for a long time because I wondered when the next “N-word” or any other form of racial slur was going to drop.

Which brings us back to Cooper and the Eagles.  I hope that Cooper’s counseling is successful and that what happened at the Kenny Chesney concert will be a teachable moment for him.  But I know that there are more than a few African-American players who may never get past it, and I can understand why.

That’s because when the word “nigger,” comes out of a white person’s mouth, the intent is to harm.  It’s an evil word that cuts at the very humanity of African-Americans.

And before you say “But I hear black people use it all of the time toward each other,” don’t. I have my issues with it being perceived as a term of “endearment” among blacks because, again, it cuts at our humanity.

It also shows just how much more racism must be cut from the American fabric in order to help us move forward.

Y’all Need to Take a Chill: The Rising Tide of Bigotry and Hate

By Chris Murray

For the Chris Murray Report and the Sunday Sun

One of my favorite scenes from the Spike Lee movie Do the Right Thing was what I’ll call “the Stereotype Rant”.

During this scene, Lee’s character Mookie went on a rant that featured stereotypes of Italian-Americans, Pino, portrayed by actor John Tuturro, hurled insults at African-Americans, Stevie, a Latino kid (Luis Antonio Ramos) slammed Asians, Officer Long (Rick Aiello), a white police officer, spewed stereotypes of Latinos and Sonny, an Asian store owner (Steve Park), finished the rant by spewing some anti-Semitic bile.

In what can only be described as a true cinematic irony, the voice of reason in this scene was, of all people, Samuel L. Jackson. Jackson, playing the role of DJ Mr. Senior Love Daddy, called for a halt to the invective by yelling, “Hold up, timeout! Y’all take a chill! Ya need to cool that sh—t out and that’s the double truth, Ruth.”

I’ve been feeling a lot like Mr. Senior Love Daddy over the past month due to the latest bouts of bigotry that have hit the national spotlight. From the near constant use of racist stereotypes by the Republican candidates for the presidency and other offices, to the list of homophobic tweets hurled by a prominent national pundit to the stream of racial insults hurled at rising New York Knicks star Jeremy Lin, I think that it’s time for us to take a chill on the stereotypes and racist, sexist and homophobic invective.

If nothing else, the fact that the villains in all of these cases are a multicultural group should tell you that even in a 2012 America presided over by an African American president, we still have a long way to go in terms of creating the Beloved Community that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of.

Since the sports world is where I hang out most often, let’s start there first…and with the most recent.

The rise in the popularity of Lin, point guard for the New York Knicks, has been fun to watch. The Harvard-educated journeyman who had been on two other teams and had spent time in the NBA’s Developmental League before getting his chance to play in the nation’s largest media market, has been an inspiration to all…especially the Asian American community.

But for some, Linsanity has been an excuse for unpacking some pretty heinous Asian-American stereotypes. For writing the headline “A Chink In The Armor”, after a Knicks loss, ESPN fired a copy editor. The network also suspended the SportsCenter anchor who repeated the slur during the evening’s broadcast.

Calling Asian Americans “chinks” is the same as calling an African-American the N-word and it’s just as wrong.

But not to be outdone in the Racial Stereotypes contest, boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr., a man not known for his tactfulness under any circumstances, said Lin wouldn’t be getting all this publicity if he were Black and the Knicks MSG Network, the network that broadcasts Lin’s games by the way, that featured a picture of Lin coming out of a fortune cookie.

Now I understand that this is a big adjustment for some of you, having an Asian American in the NBA. I mean Yao Ming just retired a year ago, right? But how about making that adjustment without sticking your foot in your mouth during the process, okay?

But while sports is where the most recent example of our need to express our Inner Racist comes from, it’s not the only, nor it is the most important, place.

Perhaps the loudest noise in the body politic of American bigotry is coming from the candidates vying for the Republican Presidential nomination. If you’re Newt Gingrich, you’re behind in the polls and you’re running in a Southern primary, the one way to get votes from that good ol’ boy NASCAR crowd that’s still pissed off about the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement and having a Black Man in the White House is to conjure up negative stereotypes of Black people on food stamps.

Not only did Gingrich suggest that poor Black kids become janitors and erroneously calling President Obama the greatest “food stamps president in history,” he also verbally smacked down Black conservative pundit Juan Williams who dared to suggest during a debate that stereotyping of African-Americans as the prime recipients of food stamps was offensive.

The next day, a South Carolina woman at a campaign rally walked up to Gingrich and thanked him for putting Williams in his “place.” For Black Southerners and for African-Americans in general, “putting someone in their place” is code for admonishing any Black person who would dare to stand up to a white man.

For all that, Gingrich got a huge ovation from the mostly white crowd in South Carolina at the debate and of course, the former House speaker, who was trailing in the polls prior to the debate, eventually won the primary.

Years ago, the late Alabama Governor George Wallace said that when he ran as a moderate Southern Democrat for governor, he didn’t get elected. But when he started using racist rhetoric, the crowds and the votes multiplied exponentially and he became governor of Alabama. President Lyndon Johnson acknowledged as much when he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and lamented that he had lost the South to the Republicans (and the former Southern Democrats that now run the Republican Party) for decades.

But while the South is where we’ve come to expect such bigotry when it comes to politics or pop culture, it’s not the only place where it’s happening. A couple of Los Angeles shock jocks referred to the late Whitney Houston as a “crack ho” during a conversation about the singer’s recent death and a pundit from Fox suggested that California Congresswoman Maxine Waters “put down the crack pipe” after she referred to Republican House leaders John Boehner and Eric Cantor as demons.

The shock jocks were suspended. The Fox commentator, Eric Bolling, tried to laugh it off…and received no punishment from the network.

Race isn’t where the latest slew of intolerance stops, however. A set of Super Bowl Sunday “Tweets” from CNN pundit Roland Martin set off a firestorm of controversy due to suggestions that any man who lingered over the H&M commercial for David Beckham’s new underwear line and a New England Patriots receiver wearing pink shoes should be beaten. A few days later, a video of a bunch of Black kids beating up a Black gay male in Atlanta was posted on YouTube.

While Martin has since apologized for his remark, and the events are in no way connected, the combination of the set of “Tweets” and the beating were symbolic of the homophobia that exists within the African-American community, something that’s kind of ironic when you consider the history of African Americans in this country.

All the gay community asking is for the same equal protection under the law as any other American citizen. Wasn’t that the principle that African Americans marched for in the 1960s? The gay community and the African-American community should be allies in the fight against bigotry and hatred.

Of course, a lot of my hardcore Christian friends will quote chapter and verse about how homosexuality is frowned upon by God. But hatred for your fellow man is far worse. That this is a violation of the whole “love your neighbor as yourself” policy tends to be overlooked by those practicing bigotry…especially those doing it in the name of God.

I really do pray for the day that the better angels within us will prevail over the tyranny of our prejudices and hatred. I pray for a world that is truly post-racial and post-hatred. The way we can start is just to Stop…

……and that’s the quadruple truth, Ruth.