A sports star being political, 19th-century style

There has been a lot of debate over the last few years about whether sports should be political. From NFL players taking a knee to a range of athletes refusing to visit the Obama and Trump White Houses, it might seem as if American sports have become politicized to an unprecedented degree. In truth, however, sports have always been political. Few items in the museum’s collections make this point better than an 1882 banner honoring boxer John L. Sullivan.

When Sullivan claimed the heavyweight boxing title by defeating fellow Irish American Paddy Ryan in February 1882, his supporters celebrated by immediately ordering silk banners such as this one. The banner copied Sullivan’s “colors,” an embroidered cloth that identified a fighter and was tied to his corner of the ring. The National Police Gazette, America’s leading sports magazine in the late 1800s, described Sullivan’s colors as “a large white handkerchief with a green border” bearing “a flag of stars and stripes with the Southern cross and an Irish flag coupled with it in each of the four corners, and a spread eagle in the center with the motto neatly worked beneath it: ‘may the best man win.’” The museum’s banner is nearly an exact replica, upgraded to blue silk and updated to note that Sullivan won the fight.

But this banner is no simple statement of victory. It is loaded with political symbols that asserted Sullivan’s views on pressing political issues of national, partisan, and racial identity.

See the green flags with harps on the banner? This was the most popular flag supporting Irish independence from the 1600s until the early 1900s (when Ireland’s current tricolor flag surpassed it). Yet Ireland was not an independent nation in 1882. Sullivan’s use of the flag was a statement against British control of Ireland. Many Irish Americans supported Irish independence, and the harp flag features in prints commemorating the several hundred Irish Americans who joined a failed transatlantic uprising for Irish independence by raiding British Canada in 1866.

Print depicting the Battle of Ridgeway showing two armies exchanging fire at close range
This print commemorating the Battle of Ridgeway portrays Irish Americans, clad in green, fighting for the independence of their homeland by raiding British Canada in 1866. Image courtesy of Library of Congress.

Just as importantly, the banner intertwines the Irish flag with a version of the U.S. flag and other symbols of the United States: an eagle, national shield, and the motto “E Pluribus Unum.” Together, these elements declared that Sullivan was as American as he was Irish. Sullivan was born in Boston to Irish immigrants. The Irish were never held as slaves in America, but into the late 1800s Irish Americans continued to battle long-standing prejudices that led many people to think of them as inferior to other European Americans. British and American writers blamed Irish people themselves rather than imperialism and bigotry for Irish poverty. They cited Irish allegiance to the Catholic Church, unsupported applications of Darwin’s theory of evolution, and the pseudoscience of phrenology—which wrongly claimed a link between people’s intellectual potential and the outline of their heads—to claim that Irish people were less independent and less intelligent than “Anglo-Teutonic” people from Northern Europe. Often, as the illustrations below demonstrate, the alleged differences were described in racial terms, with the Irish either not considered white or considered less human than other whites.

Illustration from 1890s with three illustrations of racial stereotypes
This illustration from the 1890s shows how writers in that period distorted science to falsely claim a basis for racist hierarchies. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
Illustration showing a stereotype of an African American man and a stereotype of an Irish American man seated on either arm of a scale
Dozens of cartoons from the 1800s depicted Irish Americans with ape-like faces, worn frock coats and caps that symbolized their poverty and allegedly uncivilized character. African Americans had long been subjects of similarly demeaning stereotypes, drawn with exaggerated lips, bare feet, and torn clothing. This particular cartoon uses these stereotypes to suggest that Irish voters and African American voters equally make up “The Ignorant Vote.”

For Irish Americans like Sullivan, boxing offered one way to establish their equality as “whites.” Historians have noted that the vast majority of prize-fighters in America in the late 1800s had traditionally Irish names. By physically beating other white men in the ring, Irish Americans demonstrated that they were not inferior and, by extension, were entitled to all the rights and privileges traditionally granted to white Americans.

Photograph of boxer John L. Sullivan
John L. Sullivan, with an American flag as his belt, in 1898. Image courtesy of Library of Congress.

If boxing presented Irish boxer an opportunity to assert equality as white men, Sullivan made that statement not just through his victories but also by identifying himself with specific political movements that supported his claims and denied the claims of others. Sullivan’s U.S. flag features a “Southern cross” from the Confederate battle flag, an announcement of his empathy for the South in the wake of the Civil War and his desire to see the South and North reconciled in a nation that valued white supremacy. Such sentiments certainly played to local interests, since his fight against Ryan took place in Mississippi. But his statement also played to the Democratic Party, which in the late 1800s was rooted in two constituencies: White southerners and Irish Americans.

Illustration from Harper’s Weekly
The popular news magazine "Harper’s Weekly" recognized an alliance between White southerners and Irish Americans in this graphic portrayal of how the Democratic Party overturned Reconstruction and disenfranchised African Americans in the 1870s and 1880s. Democratic presidential candidate Horatio Seymour, a northern Irish American (again portrayed as ape-like), and a white southerner (note the Confederate States of America belt buckle and knife inscribed “The Lost Cause”) are three allies trampling an African American man holding a flag and reaching for a ballot box. Image courtesy of Library of Congress.

Given his sympathy for the Confederacy and his desire to claim whiteness, it is not surprising that Sullivan refused to fight African American contenders. It was only when Canadian-born white boxer Tommy Burns agreed to fight African American Jack Johnson in Australia that boxing’s color barrier was temporarily broken in 1908. By incorporating the Confederate battle flag into the U.S. flag, and tying that symbol to an Irish nationalist flag, Sullivan asserted that he was an Irish, Democratic, and white American. Who he fought and how he represented himself established his political equality, in part by denying that equality to African Americans—at the same moment Southern states began to pass segregation laws that were later upheld by the Supreme Court in the Plessy v. Ferguson case of 1896.

Kenneth Cohen is an Edward and Helen Hintz Secretarial Scholar and a curator of American culture and politics. Alex Fergus was an intern in the Division of Cultural and Community Life, and is currently an archival assistant at Whitworth University.