People’s Historians Online: Black Athletes and the Black Freedom Struggle

I learned so much! Using sports as a lens to teach history, “not just a moment, a movement,” and all these athletes I haven’t heard of.

Mr. Zirin’s knowledge was both encyclopedic and engaging: it is rare to encounter such a capable historical scholar who is also a brilliant storyteller. I am booked through June for these wonderful online forums.

The format was really excellent, very accessible. The breakout groups came at the right time and it was nice to engage more with a small group and then return to the large group for more conversation.

These are just a few comments from the more than 250 educators and students who participated in the People’s Historians Online mini-class on Black Athletes and the Black Freedom Struggle with Dave Zirin and Jesse Hagopian on May 15, 2020. On this page we offer session highlights, a video of the full session, resources recommended by the presenters and participants, and more participant reflections.

The talk is available as a podcast via The Nation, Black Athletes and the Civil Rights Movement.


High school teacher and Zinn Education Project team member Ursula Wolfe-Rocca tweeted highlights of the event in the thread below:


Video of the full event, except the breakout sessions.


Here are many of the resources recommended by the presenters and also by participants in the chat box.


A People’s History of Sports in the United States by Dave Zirin

We Will Win the Day: The Civil Rights Movement, the Black Athlete, and the Quest for Equality by Louis Moore

Many more books were recommended by the speakers and in the chat box. Those titles and more are on the Social Justice Books K-12+ booklist on sports.


Hidden History of Strikes and Other Protests in College Sports by Dave Zirin

Indigenous Runners Rosalie Fish and Jordan Marie Daniel Run for Their People by Eilís O’Neill on WBUR

Sixty Years Ago She Refused to Stand for the Anthem: Before Colin Kaepernick kneeled, high jumper Rose Robinson defied tradition at the Pan American Games by Amira Rose Davis

Student Athletes Kneel to Level the Playing Field by Jesse Hagopian in Rethinking Schools

Maya Moore Left Basketball. A Prisoner Needed Her Help in New York Times

WNBA Star Maya Moore Helped Overturn His Conviction in New York Times


Edge of Sports Where sports and politics collide, a weekly (Tuesdays) show hosted by Nation magazine sports editor Dave Zirin.

On the Shoulders of Giants An episode of Throughline on the heavyweight boxer Jack Johnson, the sprinter Wilma Rudolph (in photo), and the basketball player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf.


See trailers of first three films further below.

Not Just a Game: Power, Politics & American Sports by Dave Zirin

Olympic Pride, American Racism by Deborah Riley Draper

The Trials of Muhammad Ali by Bill Siegel

The Mask You Live In by Jennifer Siebel Newsom

What’s My Name | Muhammad Ali by Antoine Fuqua


National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) The museum has an extensive permanent exhibit on sports in U.S. history called Leveling the Playing Field.

Kaepernick Your Rights Camp | Zinn Education Project


Athletes as Leaders A program for high school athletes on girls’ sports teams to empower student athletes to take an active role in promoting healthy relationships and ending sexual violence.

Athletes for Impact Providing a global network of athletes committed to equity and social change with the knowledge and information that they need to make informed decisions.

Coaching Boys Into Men A prevention program for high school coaches on how to teach young male athletes healthy relationship skills and that violence never equals strength.

Mentors in Violence Prevention An organization that provides sexual harassment and gender violence prevention from the locker room to the classroom and beyond.

Positive Coaching Alliance An organization dedicated to creating a positive, character-building youth sports environment.

Set the Expectation Combating sexual and physical violence through education and direct engagement with coaches, young men and boys in high school, collegiate, and professional athletic programs.

The Undefeated Online platform for exploring the intersections of race, sports, and culture.

Film Clips

Not Just a Game

Olympic Pride, American Prejudice

Olympic Pride, American Prejudice from Gravitas Ventures on Vimeo.

The Trials of Muhammad Ali


Participant Reflections

Here are some of the responses by participants from the session evaluation.

What was learned.

I would never consider myself a “sports” person and I was even a little hesitant in dropping into this specific session because. . . I don’t really like sports. I know that I’ve downplayed athletes and sports as important, but I’m walking away with books to read and an interest in how social justice movements work through and with athletes.

I appreciated learning about the women athletes who have resisted — I only knew Althea Gibson.

I really enjoyed hearing more about Robinson, Ali, and Tommy/John and the impact their activism had and continues to have. I will certainly feature these players/stories more heavily in my curriculum.

Everything was excellent and well-presented. David Zirin — yes! I like the idea of using sports as a frame for teaching history. So much is not known.

I learned so many names that I had never heard before. I hopefully will use this new knowledge to hook students who wouldn’t normally be interested in history. I also hope not to teach these athletes as individuals, but as important parts of a larger movement.

I wrote down tons of names to research more, and really appreciate ideas for framing sports history and culture, and transforming our patriarchal culture… wow! I will be incorporating as much as I can into new distance learning and hybrid learning units for the near future!

So many anecdotes, quotes, details, fascinating tidbits that drew me in and will draw my students in . . . . I want my students to see the connection between these amazing athletes and the broader movement they were a part of and how their actions on/off the field are hugely impactful to the larger civil rights movement.

Feeling a sense of permission to really explore this topic in my U.S. history class more than I have been.

So many great stories! I loved hearing about Muhammad Ali throwing his gold medal in the river. I enjoyed the discussion about the different ways black athletes have used their platform to advocate for change.

Oh my goodness. ALL of this is amazing!! My mind was blown on how much I just learned. Integrating sports into the curriculum is a very smart way to teach about labor movements and social justice issues. Connecting all these social justice pioneers to current events is so beneficial to understanding patterns in history.

There is a complexity of the human spirit and human experience that underlies sports.

Teach history — World and U.S. — through the lens of sports. It is also good to look at sports through the lens of capitalism and workers.

That there will be a Kaep award in the NFL is reminiscent of the ways in which people lie about their support for Ali and revulsion about the Vietnam War. My students will love it.

There were so many important stories shared today! The story about Wilma Rudolf really moved me and I’d never heard of Wyomia Tyus. Just having access to her name has shifted my understanding of the ways in which sports culture has shift race and gender relations in the United States.

Curt Flood Rule, Tiger Belles, all the Black figures who are obscure and the way all of this history was unpacked. Just absolutely BEAUTIFUL and would LOVE another session on this one!

Like with so much history, the wealth of activity by many ordinary people resisting, struggling, organizing, standing on principle and honor, made this so much more exciting than just again mentioning the famous names.

The idea that teaching history through the frame of sports gives students a way to ground their understanding, and also serves as a hook, was a big takeaway. Also, the way that Paul Robeson and Wyomia Tyus both supported/refused to criticize, or actually supported other people in the movement even when faced with exclusion or criticism. Those two stories stood out as particularly powerful.

Just so many things — particularly the details about the Olympic Black Power fist moment — I had no idea the backstory, the details and care that went into it, the before and after, down to the beads and buttons they wore and what it all stood for.

Loved the image analysis of John Carlos and Tommie Smith. At the beginning of the year we teach a unit on the Constitution and tie this in with anthem protests. I cannot wait to share the protests from the 1960s to help add to the narrative.

Dave Zirin was really inspiring and his sharing of resources is amazing for me. I am not much a fan of sports, but any way I can connect to students and adults is invaluable.

The format.

As readers can see from the responses below, most (but not all) participants like the mix of speakers, breakout rooms, and the chat box.  

I like the breakout sessions to hear what others are doing.

Better amount of time in the breakout sessions this week!

Especially liked being able to process with breakout groups

It worked because Zirin was able to pack in a tremendous amount of material in a short time.

Wish we had more time with Dave Zirin, but I liked the breakout.

It was great! My participant group was a little quiet and the facilitator really kept it going. It was also REALLY cool to have a high school student (I’m a teacher) in the group sharing their thoughts and ideas.

I know there are time limits but I really wish we had more time to speak in our breakout rooms.

More breakout time needed!

I don’t love breakout groups.

Great presentation and back and forth with Jesse and Dave! I thought everything was great! This might be the best one I’ve been to so far.

I really appreciate the format, both the main room and the breakout sessions; the people in my breakout rooms are so inspiring and creative.

The format was great. I really enjoyed the break out session and the conversation between Jesse and David was fantastic.

Liked large and small sessions.

Would rather have listened to Dave Zirin instead of going to a breakout room. The breakout would have been better if people from similar occupations would be grouped together.

Dave is such an amazing wealth of information and I felt like this could have easily been twice as long.

Obviously we could spend hours on these topics making . . .  time stop?

I liked the breadth of information shared from both past and present. Great resources.

This was a fabulously informative session. Thank you. It also was nice to have a small breakout just to build relationship, have time to process, and then return for the final question.

I am not a big fan of the breakout rooms. I wanted to hear more from this speaker. It’s good to see what other educators are doing but maybe shorten the time. There is a lot of awkward silence.

I loved it all. Particularly appreciated break out time to meet a small group of others interested in same matters. Although I had lived thru much of the history discussed re 1950’s, 60s, 70s, I learned new info.

You have the format just right.

Zirin is electric! His content knowledge, coupled with his enthusiasm, drew me in. The format was great as was the discussion in the break out group!

Of course, there needs to be a part two. I could listen to Dave drop knowledge for hours. Overall, the format is getting better and there was adequate time for the break out session.

All of the knowledge that Dave Zirin had, and the way he told it through stories, while making connections to broader themes, was awesome. I could have listened for a lot longer.

The format was really excellent, very accessible. I loved the whole group conversation, hearing dense/rich storytelling while simultaneously reading and engaging in dense/rich info-sharing in the chat . . . . The breakout groups came at the right time and it was nice to engage more with a small group and then return to the large group for more conversation. Perfect length as well.

Additional comments.

The conversation was incredible!

It’s easy to numb out to survive the stress during COVID-19. These workshops give me something to look forward and the learning and growing that takes place keeps me motivated as a learner and educator. Thank you!

Thanks, the conversation was incredible!

Jesse Hagopian is a national and regional treasure — so glad to have him in the Pacific Northwest!

Thanks so much for this! I just happened upon it via a Facebook post, and I’m so glad I jumped in.

Thank you! As usual, a highlight of my week!

I would love to have these weekly for the indefinite future even in the fall when we “go back to school” — THIS is the kind of engaging professional development I crave.

These have been amazing!! Thank you!!

Keep up the amazing work. Each week I am blown away at what I learn!



Dave Zirin Dave Zirin is the sports editor for The Nation magazine and a frequent guest on Democracy Now! His books include Welcome to the Terrordome (Haymarket Books), A People’s History of Sports in the United States (New Press), and he is co-author of The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment That Changed the World (Haymarket Books). He wrote the script for the film Not Just a Game: Power, Politics & American Sports.
Jesse Hagopian teaches Ethnic Studies and is the co-adviser to the Black Student Union at Garfield High School in Seattle. He is an editor for Rethinking Schoolsthe co-editor of Teaching for Black Lives, and editor of More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing.


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