A few weeks ago, on Monday, November 24th, Charlie Sifford received the nation’s highest civilian honor when he was among a group of 18 distinguished individuals that accepted the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama during a ceremony at the White House.
Stevie Wonder, Meryl Streep, Ethel Kennedy, Isabel Allende and others who have made significant contributions to America’s rich cultural tapestry were among the honorees. Sifford’s offering to society may not be as pronounced or recognized as the others, but they are equally important, and possibly more.
For decades, Sifford was one of the world’s best golfers, yet he wasn’t granted the platform to prove it to a national audience until he was past his prime. Throughout the 1950’s, he was subjected to the dreadful hideousness of racist harassment on golf courses as he attempted to enter PGA events.
As Jaime Diaz wrote in a 1992 New York Times article, “During one qualifying round in Phoenix in 1953, Sifford and three other black players who had been sent out in the first group reached the green on the first hole and found the cup filled with human excrement.”
In 1961, at the age of 38, he was finally able to step over the ‘Caucasians Only’ clause in the PGA’s bylaws and obtain his tour card.
But receiving his card, despite being a symbolic triumph, did not end a strenuous climb through pro golf’s institutionalized racism. He broke through barriers and was the first African-American to win a PGA-sanctioned tour event. But if you look beyond the long and wide shadow of Tiger Woods, it’s appalling to see how far the rates of blacks in professional golf have diminished since Sifford was blazing his trail in the 1960’s and ‘70s.
As the brilliant New York Times columnist and Author Bill Rhoden recently wrote, “Often called the Jackie Robinson of golf, Sifford might have endured even more than Robinson. There was no national scrutiny, no daily media to record his struggles. There was no Branch Rickey to run interference, no teammates to lean on. There was Sifford, walking alone on golf courses where hateful spectators were free to spit, swear and intimidate. It was awful.”
(Photo Credit: pgatour.com)
Sifford is 92 years old now, and as he’s mentioned in the past, there are many regrets that come to mind when he thinks about his career, troubling thoughts of a competitive destiny that he wasn’t allowed to fulfill.
“I really would like to know how good I could have been with a fair chance,” Sifford told the New York Times in 1992. “I loved the game, and I had a gift, but I had too much pressure. I will never know.”
“Without Charlie Sifford, there would have been no one to fight the system for blacks that followed,” Lee Elder, the first African-American to compete at the Master’s, told the Times in 1992. “It took a special person to take the things he took: the tournaments that barred him, the black cats in his bed, the hotels where he couldn’t stay, the country club grills where he couldn’t eat.”
Sifford is a true American treasure. His story of perseverance is one that everyone should know, for it extends beyond athletics.
“Didn’t anyone think I was going to get this far,” he once said. "It’s like Nelson Mandela. They kept him in jail for 25 years, but it didn’t break his determination. They couldn’t break mine.”
“I’m not angry at anybody,” he said when he’d retired from the Senior Tour over 20 years ago. “But I will never undertand why they didn’t want the black man to play golf. Nobody ever loved this game more than me.”