The arrival of February ushers in the month long celebration of Black History Month. February is also the month that on the 1st Sunday, the world's attention is focused on a major U.S. sporting event, the Super Bowl.

What is interesting about these significant events is the unique nexus of the great civil rights leaders of 60 plus years ago and the young African-American stars who showed their athletic skills at Super Bowl XLVIII.

I venture to state that many of the folks who had watched the game, especially those who are under 60 years in age, would not recognize the "star players" of 60 years ago -- whose efforts and sacrifices cleared the field for the football players we witnessed on Super Bowl Sunday.

The "players" of the ‘50s and ‘60s performed at a time when many of today's NFL teams did not exist -- in part because it was not acceptable, south of the Mason-Dixon Line, to have a "mixed group" perform in public.

The physical abuse and the deprivation that were heaped upon the civil rights stalwarts of six decades ago was the price to be incurred to remove the scourge of discrimination that existed throughout the south and in professional football (and other major sports teams).

In 1958, when the New York Football Giants played against the Baltimore Colts, in what many have believed to be the greatest playoff game of all time (Giants lost in O.T. 23 to 17), there were no NFL teams south of Washington, D.C.


Advertisement

It was only after the struggles, arising from the civil rights movement, did the landscape change -- the South accepted the NFL (and the AFL) and the following southern teams came into existence:

* Miami Dolphins, 1966,

* Tennessee Titans (formerly the Houston Oilers), 1960,

* Dallas Cowboys, 1960,

* New Orleans Saints, 1967,

* and the Atlanta Falcons, 1965.

One of the many positive changes in the last 60 years is to witness how African-Americans have become the stars of the NFL at all 11 player positions. Also gratifying is to see that African-Americans are now the head coaches of many of the professional football teams.

Unfortunately, not all is positive. In 2014, America does not have the civil rights leaders we had in the 50s and 60s.

Where are today's A. Philip Randolph and Rev. Ralph Abernathy? Randolph, a union leader was not afraid to take on Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy, insisting that they bring down the barriers of segregation in industry and within the military.

Abernathy, much younger than Randolph, along with Dr. Martin L. King, Jr., led the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in its struggle to end segregation. He was alongside Dr. King when the latter was assassinated in 1968.

In the 50s and 60s, whenever the acronym, NAACP was mentioned the name Roy Wilkins would resonate. I will admit, that I did not know who heads up the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. It turns out to be Ms. Lorraine C. Miller -- I had to look it up. Wilkins, a giant of the civil rights movement, was so well respected that Presidents Kennedy through Carter would not hesitate to seek his counsel.

When Rosa Parks died, at age 92, her country gave her an honor no other women had ever achieved. In October, 2005, the remains of Parks were placed in honor underneath the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. The honor had been bestowed because 50 years earlier, in Montgomery, Ala., this icon of the early civil rights movement refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white person.

I'm not surprised that we do not have the civil rights leaders today that we once had -- times have changed. Discrimination does exist, albeit subtly -- segregation does not in large part because of the efforts of those noted above and countless others.

On the first Sunday of Black History Month we witnessed the performance of dozens of African-American and white professional football players performing before a live audience of some 85,000. And as we celebrated the game and the Seattle Seahawks success (43 to 8) there was also reason to celebrate -- it was for the great leaders who had opened up a hole in the line -- 60 years ago and millions have since marched through it.

A footnote: In 1958, this writer served with the United States Marine Corps 24 man Silent Drill Team Platoon out of Washington, D.C. We had been invited to perform on New Year's Eve during the half-time show at the Florida Gator Bowl. The four African-American Marines who were on our drill team were not allowed to travel with us to Florida -- instead, four white Marines had been substituted to take their place.

Don Keelan writes a bi-weekly column and lives in Arlington.