For those of us outside of Chicago, Mike Ditka is remembered as the former coach of certain team known as “Da Bears.” Ditka jumped into NFL controversy today with a historically inaccurate observation that there was no oppression in the United States in the past century.
“All of a sudden, it’s become a big deal now, about oppression,” Ditka told Jim Gray on Westwood One’s pregame show, quoted by the Chicago Tribune. “There has been no oppression in the last 100 years that I know of. Now maybe I’m not watching it as carefully as other people.”
Ditka, who was born in 1939, should know better.
Growing up in the North, Ditka may not have witnessed much of the segregation that was present in Southern cities of the time, but integration was a major story of his lifetime. He would have been eight-years-old when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball in 1947. A year earlier, Kenny Washington had become the first black player in the NFL.
Ditka was in his 20s during the civil struggles of the 1960s. The Freedom Riders hopped aboard Greyhound buses in 1961 when Ditka was 22. Medgar Evers was murdered in 1963 when Ditka was 24.
In 1961, Mike Ditka was drafted by the Chicago Bears and played for the team until 1967, when he was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles. In 1966, shortly before he left the Windy City, Martin Luther King led the Chicago Campaign, a series of marches and demonstrations aimed at achieving fair housing practices.
During one march through Chicago’s West Side in July 1966, violence erupted as white counterprotesters attacked the marchers with bottles, bricks and rocks. King, who was struck by a rock, said, “I have seen many demonstrations in the south but I have never seen anything so hostile and so hateful as I’ve seen here today.”
Two years later, King was murdered in Memphis. The story generated headlines as far away as Philadelphia.
In 1969, Ditka went to the Dallas Cowboys. Although racial segregation has been outlawed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Ditka must have seen some vestiges of the racist attitudes that had been prevalent only a few years before. In Texas, integration of both blacks and Hispanics was still ongoing at the time.
The Chicago Tribune notes with some irony that the Chicago Bears, a team that Ditka coached as well as played for, was the subject of the movie, “Brian’s Song.” The 1971 film is the story of the first interracial teammates to room together on Bears road trips.
Oppression in 20th century America was all around Mike Ditka. He can probably remember many of these events if he tries. Civil rights history was happening all around him.
America is a great country, but not all of our past is great. Although tempting, we shouldn’t blot out the bad parts. We need to remember them so that we can learn from them. Studying America’s dark racial past also serves to show us how far we have come.