Was the Reconstruction Era a Success or Failure: A Look Through Sport

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Table of contents

  1. Basketball's Emergence and the Struggle of Reconstruction
  2. Conclusion
  3. Bibliography

The competitive sport of basketball traces its origins to a game known as peach basketball. In 1891, Dr. James Naismith invented basketball at Springfield College, Massachusetts. Initially, peach baskets without openings at the bottom served as goals, requiring the use of ladders to retrieve the ball after each successful basket. The game was created to provide an indoor activity between football and baseball seasons. However, before basketball's invention, the United States was grappling with the aftermath of slavery during the Reconstruction era, from the late 1860s to the 1870s. The question of whether Reconstruction was a success or failure has been widely debated. This essay contends that the Reconstruction was a failure, mainly due to radical groups like the KKK and Jim Crow Laws, which denied African Americans the legal rights guaranteed by the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments.

Basketball's Emergence and the Struggle of Reconstruction

The era between 1865 and 1877, known as Reconstruction, was a pivotal time in American history. Following the Civil War, the United States government sought to mend the nation's wounds and rebuild a unified country. The adoption of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments was seen as a beacon of hope, aiming to eradicate the shackles of slavery, grant African Americans their rightful citizenship, and secure their voting rights. However, this period was fraught with challenges as it faced fierce opposition from white supremacists and the implementation of oppressive Jim Crow laws.

The Reconstruction Amendments were intended to be a new beginning for African Americans, offering them a chance at equality and civil rights. The 13th Amendment, ratified in 1865, abolished slavery, putting an end to the abhorrent practice that had plagued the nation for centuries. The 14th Amendment, passed in 1868, granted citizenship to all individuals born or naturalized in the United States, irrespective of race. This amendment aimed to secure equal protection under the law for every citizen, ensuring that the promise of freedom was not an empty one.

In 1870, the 15th Amendment was ratified, giving African American men the right to vote. This was a significant step towards political empowerment and representation for a community that had endured centuries of oppression. These amendments were the embodiment of the nation's desire to break free from its tumultuous past and create a society built on justice, liberty, and equality.

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However, the dreams of a new and just America were soon met with resistance and hostility. White supremacists and hate groups, the most notorious being the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), launched a campaign of terror and violence against African Americans. Racially-motivated lynchings, an appalling act of cruelty and hatred, claimed the lives of over 3500 African Americans between 1865 and 1900. The KKK, clad in their white hoods, instilled fear and intimidation, attempting to suppress the newly gained civil rights and suffocate any semblance of progress.

In the face of such brutality, African Americans were denied the basic opportunities that should have been their birthright. The dream of participating in basketball, a sport that was gradually gaining popularity, remained unfulfilled for countless talented individuals who faced discrimination solely based on the color of their skin. Instead of embracing and celebrating the skills and talents of black athletes, society at large continued to perpetuate a deeply ingrained racial divide.

Despite the Amendments and the significant progress they symbolized, racism persisted, seeping into every aspect of society, including sports. African Americans, even those who had demonstrated extraordinary talents, were barred from participating in integrated athletic leagues, reinforcing the notion of a segregated and unequal America.

As basketball gained popularity after its inception in 1891, the effects of slavery still lingered, preventing African Americans from fully embracing the game. Most were confined to working in fields for wealthy white landowners. Consequently, basketball became predominantly associated with white players during its early years. Even when physically gifted black players joined the league in the 1950s, they faced extreme prejudice in sports, which persisted throughout the latter half of the 20th century.

On October 31, 1950, Earl Lloyd made history as the first African American to officially enter the NBA. However, his journey was marred by racism, with fans hurling offensive remarks and even spitting on him. Other black players, like Wilt Chamberlain, faced similar discrimination, despite their exceptional talents. Although the 14th and 15th amendments granted equal protection under the law and voting rights, racial prejudice still prevailed in the 1950s-1960s. The media coverage of Chamberlain's remarkable achievement of scoring 100 points was tainted by racial slurs, showcasing the persistence of racism in sports and society.

The NBA has come a long way since then in terms of integration, with African American players constituting a significant majority. Nevertheless, racism remains an issue in the present day, as evidenced by instances like NBA player Russell Westbrook's complaint about racist remarks from fans. The league's history, once predominantly white, has been marked by racial inequality and discrimination, leaving a lasting impact on African American players and the game itself.


Despite the accomplishments of black athletes, racial attitudes in the white-dominant American culture have not significantly changed. The struggles faced by black players in the past continue to reverberate in the present, reflecting a persistent divide in society. Racism, both inside and outside the sports world, has left an indelible mark on basketball and serves as a stark reminder of the work that remains to achieve true equality in the game and in American society.


  1. Becker, Jon. “Attles: Wilt Chamberlain Didn't Want to Score 100 Points.” The Mercury News. The Mercury News, March 2, 2017. https://www.mercurynews.com/2017/03/02/anniversary-the-night-wilt-chamberlain-scored-100-points/.
  2. Bell, Taylor H. A. Sweet Charlie, Dike, Cazzie, and Bobby Joe: High School Basketball in Illinois. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004.
  3. “Donald Sterling Banned for Life by the NBA for ‘Deeply Disturbing’ Comments.” CBS News. CBS Interactive. Accessed September 17, 2019.
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