From left to right: Karl Downs in his office; standing with Jackie Robinson; and with his wife, Marion, and daughter, Karleen. All images from the Dr. Karl E. Downs Papers, Courtesy of the Huston-Tillotson University Downs-Jones Library Archives and Special Collections, Austin, Texas.

Paul Putz

In January 1938 Jackie Robinson was eighteen years old, a junior college student living in Pasadena, California, unsure and uncertain about the direction of his life.

But that month he encountered Karl Downs, a twenty-five-year-old Methodist minister who was new in town.

Downs had arrived in Pasadena to take charge of Robinson’s home church, Scott Methodist. Robinson’s mother, Mallie, was a devoted churchgoer, but by 1938 Robinson had lost interest. He didn’t see the value in religion; it didn’t seem to connect with his life.

Downs changed all of that. “Those of us who had been indifferent church members began to feel an excitement in belonging,” Robinson later wrote. Inspired by his new minister, Robinson found new meaning and direction. “Faith in God then began to register in him as both a mysterious force, beyond his comprehension, and a pragmatic way to negotiate the world,” Robinson’s biographer Arnold Rampersad explained. “A measure of emotional and spiritual poise such as he had never known at last entered his life.”

Rachel Robinson, Jackie’s wife, confirmed the transformational impact Downs had on her husband. “Karl was the father that Jack didn’t have,” she recalled. “Jack was so close to him. He kept saying that Karl changed his life.”

The relationship between Karl Downs and Jackie Robinson is well known. But while plenty has been written about the connection between the two men, much less has been written about Downs himself.[1] As a Christian minister, what did he believe and practice? As a Black man in the United States, what role did he play in the civil rights movement? Given his significance to sports history, what did he think about the relationship between sports and faith?

By exploring those questions, we can better appreciate the legacy of a remarkable Black Christian leader who left an indelible mark on American life—in sports and beyond.

Black in a White Denomination

By the time Downs arrived in Pasadena, he was already a rising star with deep roots in the Methodist world. Born and raised in Texas, his father, John, was a minister connected to the predominantly white northern Methodist Episcopal denomination. Unlike southern white Methodists, who were far more prominent in Texas, the northern Methodists had opposed slavery and supported the Union during the Civil War. But the historical opposition to slavery did not mean that northern Methodists opposed racial segregation or that they were always a welcoming space for Black people. In the early 1800s, Black-led denominations in the North including the AME and AMEZ Church had split from the Methodist church precisely because Black lives weren’t being valued. Similarly, in 1876 white and Black members of the northern Methodist church in Texas formed their own conferences, with Black members claiming the West Texas Conference.

This denominational context is crucial for understanding Downs. One the one hand, he was not a member of an independent Black denomination like the AME or AMEZ Church. And yet, even though his Methodist church was predominantly white at a national level, at a local level Downs was immersed in a Black environment—whether in Texas or in California at Scott Methodist Church.

This arrangement had obvious downsides for a Black church leader like Downs, including the fact that he ultimately answered to white leaders. But it could also provide at least limited access to the financial resources available to predominantly white institutions.

Both the opportunities and disadvantages of being Black in the Methodist Episcopal church would define Downs’ ministry. He focused on nurturing Black life while building relationships across racial lines and challenging the segregated status quo. Under his watch, according to historian Randal Jelks, Scott Methodist “became a haven where congregants could build strength and power for confronting the humiliation and crucifixion they faced on a daily basis.”

Advancing a “Christ-Set” World

Downs began his leadership path soon after graduating from high school in Waco, Texas, in 1929. Baylor University, the largest college in Waco, was not an option; it would not open its doors to Black students for three more decades. Downs went to college instead at Samuel Huston in Austin (now Huston-Tillotson College), an HBCU founded by the Methodist Episcopal church in the 1870s. After graduating there, he continued to Gammon Theological Seminary in Atlanta—another HBCU founded by Methodist Episcopal leaders—and then to Boston University School of Theology, the premiere Methodist seminary in the United States.

As Downs made his way through Methodist colleges and seminaries, he linked up with an interracial Methodist student movement taking shaping in the 1930s. In an era of global crises, including economic depression and the looming threat of war, the movement sought to confront the challenges of the day with a prophetic Christian witness. Downs quickly became a star. James Farmer, who would later become a leading civil rights activist, recalled attending a Methodist Youth Conference in 1936 where he encountered Downs—an “extraordinary personality” and a “frail, charismatic man” who was already “legendary in Methodist circles.”

What made Downs so appealing was his sense of the moment, his ability to blend courage and pragmatism. He also had a knack for holding in tension both the call for social action and personal transformation. He was “theologically evangelical and socially progressive,” scholars Michael Long and Chris Lamb explain, combining elements of his Methodist upbringing with an emerging Black social gospel movement and a theological personalism that was prominent in Methodist seminaries.

A 1938 conference focused on “Christian Fellowship in a World of Conflict” shows Downs in action.

“We have come to this hour at one of the most opportune times in the history of mankind,” Downs declared. “For this night the world is set for a spiritual explosion which will eradicate those agitating, aggravating, agonizing agents of hell which seek to destroy our generation.”

Downs pointed his audience to the image of “a conquering, saving Christ” who looked at the needs of a “devastating world” and responded: “I am come that you might have life and have it more abundantly.”

While Downs urged the students to confront injustice, he also called on them to cultivate their inner selves, to make space for God to work in their hearts by practicing the time-worn spiritual disciplines of quiet meditation, prayer, and focused study of the Bible.

“It does little good to give oneself to a cause if one has only a feeble self to give. I must insist: the first obligation of one who wishes to give himself, concerns his own personal growth and development,” he said. “Much of the high-powered salesmanship about saving the world too often leaves some of the deepest needs of the soul unfaced and unmet.”

If Downs urged passionate young activists not to ignore their personal spiritual lives, he had a different message for established church authorities. To them, he demanded greater willingness to engage with the problems confronting the world.

At a 1938 Methodist conference in Chicago, held to commemorate the two-hundredth anniversary of Methodist founder John Wesley’s famous “heart strangely warmed” experience, Downs was invited to participate on a panel about the future of the church.

Downs framed his remarks in the context of the rising global threats of fascism and communism. Both, he said, threatened the church because they claimed “supreme loyalty” from their adherents. The only way for the church to respond, in Downs’ view, was by offering an all-encompassing vision of life.

“Unless the Church early comes to the conviction that what it proposes is so necessary, so worthy of loyalty, and so impossible of accomplishment by other institutions that it should be given major place in our lives,” he told the audience, “there will be many young people who will not wholeheartedly give all of their allegiance to its work or feel a deep interest in its program.”

This was not simply about Christianizing the social order, but about orienting all of life in and towards Christ. “The new world we have been talking about is not to be some set of systems, techniques, or projects to which we merely add Christ,” Downs said, “but a Christ-set world with all things else devolving from him as center.”

Downs believed that putting this into practice would involve speaking with conviction about the evils of the day, facing the ethical demands of life with an uncompromising honesty filtered through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. He cited war, poverty, and racism as specific issues that demanded a Christian response.

“We cannot think of Calvary without remembering the young Galilean who walked into the temple and drove out the money-changers,” Downs said. “We cannot think of Calvary without calling to mind the fact that He gave His every bit to eradicate racial prejudices and class conflicts.”

“Racial prejudice is a problem that is very close to some of us,” he continued. “We must constantly speak out against it…as fearlessly as Christ would have spoken upon this evil.”

Downs’ words on racism—and his remarks that it “is very close to some of us”—were especially poignant for reasons that would become public knowledge the following month. Although Downs had been instructed to register at the official conference hotel in Chicago, when he attempted to check in to his room the hotel refused. Downs and several white friends protested the hotel’s actions, but a white Methodist leader arrived and publicly reprimanded Downs for causing a scene.

“The prejudice of the hotel was not to be compared with the agony of the blow my own church leader had given me” Downs wrote in an open letter titled “Did My Church Forsake Me?”. Downs recalled that he barely slept the night before his speech, unable to suppress “the fact that my church had led me into the agony of soul-piercing embarrassment due to the color of my skin.”

Downs’ experience highlighted the harsh reality of being Black in a predominantly white church space. While Methodists were more willing than most white denominations to create space for interracial interaction, when leaders were forced to choose between supporting Black people or supporting white supremacy, the latter usually won out.

Sports in a “Christ-Set World”

Downs’ address at the Methodist conference in 1938 was significant not only for the impassioned eloquence of his speech or for the way his experience revealed persistent racism, but also for this: On the stage with him that day and serving on the same panel was fellow Methodist Branch Rickey.

At the time Rickey was general manager for the St. Louis Cardinals. His speech focused on a layman’s perspective of the church, emphasizing the need for a “personal working faith” that would be useful when “put to the practical field test.” It’s unclear if Rickey knew what Downs had experienced the day before. But the two men would stay nominally connected through their shared Methodist networks; seven years later Rickey turned to Downs as a liaison while scouting Jackie Robinson.

Given James Farmer’s description of Downs as “frail,” it might seem odd that the Methodist minister would play a pivotal role in sports history. But while Downs was certainly not a star athlete—music was his extracurricular activity of choice—he enjoyed athletic competition. Jackie Robinson remembered Downs as a competitor who “participated with us in our sports.” At Gammon Theological Seminary in 1936, newspaper reports from an exhibition basketball game described his play as “outstanding with some twenty points to lead the scoring of the day.”

While some Christians, both Black and white, remained suspicious of sports as a “worldly” activity, Downs understood their cultural and social value. Like other Black muscular Christians—men like football coach Jake Gaither or basketball coach John McLendon—he linked athletics with racial pride and advancement. And he brought sports into the life of the church, too, setting up a recreation program at Scott Methodist. Robinson recalled that Downs received pushback from more traditional members of the congregation, but the minister persevered. “Reverend Downs was both stubborn and courageous,” Robinson said. “He believed in setting up programs and sticking to them, regardless of criticism.”

Downs’ support for sports extended into the broader Black community of Pasadena. In 1940, he helped form the Pasadena Athletic Club, with Robinson installed as its first president (by then Robinson was a star athlete for UCLA). The goals for the club mirrored Downs’ own emphases, including promoting “unity among the Negro youth of our community” as well as “cultural and athletic development” and “love for the Christian ideals of our American democracy.”

In 1943, Downs’ book Meet The Negro further demonstrated his view of sports as a means of cultivating Black pride and advancing Christian ideals. Published in the middle of World War II, Downs aligned the book with the rhetoric of the “Double V” campaign, focusing on victory over fascism abroad and racism at home.

In the introduction he sought to provide a counter-narrative to language that depicted Black people as a “problem” or “issue” to be solved. “To be born black is more than to be persecuted; it is to be privileged,” he wrote. While acknowledging the persistence of racism—he noted that Black Americans had experienced fascism, harassment, and lynching “before ever Hitler was born”—he emphasized the inherent dignity of Black people. “True democracy, potent Christianity and genuine brotherhood lie enshrouded within the bloom of the ‘Negro Possibility,’” he declared.

Downs’ book was organized around biographical vignettes of successful Black Americans. While he did not focus on sports, he made space for athletes, with profiles devoted to Joe Louis, Henry Armstrong, Jesse Owens, and Satchel Page. The place of sports as one part of a larger whole was precisely as it should be in Downs’ way of seeing the world. Sports were not a primary thing, but they were important, meant to be celebrated and cultivated as one aspect of a “Christ-set world.”

A Lasting Legacy

By the time Downs published Meet The Negro in 1943, he was back in Austin, Texas, taking over as president of his alma mater, Samuel Huston College. Just thirty-one years old at the time, his impact was felt immediately. Within a couple years he had launched a successful building campaign, boosted enrollment, and generated newfound excitement within the school.

Robinson, meanwhile, had joined the Army and by 1944 was also stationed in Texas. He was honorably discharged later that year, freeing him up to consider where he wanted to go next in life. As it happened, Downs was on the lookout for a basketball coach and physical education instructor, someone who could enhance the college’s athletic program. The pay wasn’t great, but Robinson couldn’t turn down his mentor. So at the end of 1944, Robinson moved to Austin where he coached the Samuel Huston basketball team.

Robinson’s stay didn’t last long. He joined the Kansas City Monarchs early in 1945, and later that year made the historic decision to sign with the Brooklyn Dodgers. But even as Robinson embarked on his boundary-breaking journey, Downs remained involved in his life. When Robinson married Rachel Isum in 1946, Downs adjusted his busy schedule and paid his own way to travel to California and perform the wedding. And when Robinson was honored at the end of his triumphant 1947 rookie season with a “Jackie Robinson Day” celebration in Brooklyn, Downs made sure he was there.

That September visit turned out to be the last time Robinson ever saw his mentor and friend. While in Brooklyn, Downs experienced severe stomach pain that forced him to check in to a hospital. Although both Jackie and Rachel urged Downs to remain in Brooklyn and get further treatment, he felt compelled to return to work. So back to Austin he went. The medical issue remained unresolved, and in February of 1948 Downs was back in the hospital for an operation.

In his autobiography, Robinson explained what happened next:

Karl went to a segregated hospital to be operated on. As he was being wheeled back from the recovery room, complications set in. Rather than returning his black patient to the operating room or to a recovery room to be closely watched, the doctor in charge let him go to the segregated ward where he died. We believe Karl would not have died if he had received proper care.

Downs was only thirty-five when he died in the segregated ward of an Austin hospital, a “victim of racism,” as Robinson put it. For Robinson, the loss was intensely personal. But it went even deeper. “Karl Downs ranked with Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in ability and dedication,” Robinson wrote. “Had he lived he would have developed into one of the front line leaders on the national scene.”

Given how much Downs had accomplished by the age of thirty-five, Robinson is likely correct in his assessment. But although Downs’ life was snatched away far too early, his imprint on the civil rights movement extended further than Robinson realized.

Between the time that Downs returned from Brooklyn in September and died in February, he worked behind the scenes to organize the Mary L. Smith Memorial Lectures, hosted by Samuel Huston College. The lectures were birthed from Downs’ influence within Methodist circles. The goal was to provide a platform for Black religious leaders to get their writing distributed to the wider public. Coming with a $500 honorarium and an expectation that the talks would be sent to a Methodist press for publication, the series demonstrated Downs’ ability to channel white investment into Black spaces.

Downs’ choice for the inaugural speaker was theologian and minister Howard Thurman. The two shared a mutual sense of respect. Thurman later described Downs as “a young acquaintance of mine, a brilliant Black Methodist Episcopal Minister.” And Downs, for his part, was clearly influenced by Thurman. His focus on emphasizing both the personal and the social, on cultivating the inner life while also working for justice, were common themes in Thurman’s writings.

The lectures were set to take place in April of 1948, and Thurman received the invitation from Downs in January. He chose as his subject a theme he’d been developing and considering over the previous decade: “The Religion of Jesus and the Disinherited.”

Historian Paul Harvey describes the book that resulted from those talks, Jesus and the Disinherited, as a “foundational text” for the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King, Jr., an admirer of Thurman, was said to have carried a copy of it throughout the 1955 Montgomery bus boycotts that propelled him to national leadership. The central theme of the book—articulating “the significance of the religion of Jesus to people who stand with their backs against the wall”—continues to resonate and inspire today. Similarly, the questions Thurman raised continue to speak a prophetic word: “Why is it that Christianity seems impotent to deal radically, and therefore effectively, with the issues of discrimination and injustice on the basis of race, religion and national origin?”

Downs never heard Thurman deliver his talks nor read the book that came from them. But Downs’ influence was central to making it all happen. “Besides Thurman,” biographer Peter Eisenstadt writes, “the person most responsible for Jesus and the Disinherited was Karl E. Downs.”

To play a central role in both the life of Jackie Robinson and the publication of Jesus and the Disinherited is a remarkable legacy few other leaders can match.

That legacy continued in Robinson’s life long after Downs passed away. In the 1960s Robinson reflected on the lessons he had learned from his former minister, listing four of them:

To be able to recognize God as the vital force in life.

To develop one’s own self to the best of one’s ability.

Not only to stay out of evil—but to try to get into good.

To seek to help others without thinking so much of what we will get out of it, but what we are putting into it.

Even more than those lessons, perhaps the best testimonial of Downs’ influence on Robinson came from the way Robinson understood sports in the broader context of life. For as much as he had accomplished in his athletic career, as much fame and celebrity as he had achieved, Robinson refused to see himself as a man set apart from the broader realities facing Black people in the United States.

This was the very meaning of the title of his autobiography, I Never Had It Made. Many people, especially white Americans, viewed Robinson as evidence of the nation’s racial progress. They expected him to see the same thing, to remain ever thankful for the chance to play baseball in the white major leagues.

But Robinson rejected that narrative.

“I’m grateful for all the breaks and honors and opportunities I’ve had,” he wrote. “But I always believe I won’t have it made until the humblest Black kid in the most remote backwoods of America has it made.”

To see sports as something that is important but not ultimate, something that can be enjoyed but also used for the benefit of others—it seems likely that Downs would say this is how sports should function in a Christ-set world.

[1] The best scholarly sources on Downs, both of which were essential for this essay, are Michael Long and Chris Lamb’s Jackie Robinson: A Spiritual Biography (Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), and Randal Maurice Jelks’ essay, “A Methodist Life,” in 42 Today: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy, ed. Michael Long (New York University Press, 2021). Jackie Robinson’s autobiography, I Never Had It Made, and Arnold Rampersad’s Jackie Robinson: A Biography also provided key information.

Other important secondary sources used in this essay include Paul Harvey’s Howard Thurman and the Disinherited: A Religious Biography (Eerdmans, 2020), and Peter Eisenstadt’s Against the Hounds of Hell: A Life of Howard Thurman (University of Virginia Press, 2021). Howard Thurman’s With Head and Heart: The Autobiography of Howard Thurman (Harcourt Brace, 1979) and James Farmer’s Lay Bare The Heart: An Autobiography of the Civil Rights Movement (Arbor House, 1985) also provided perspective on Downs.

Important primary sources showing Downs’ words and activities include the following:

  • California Eagle digital archives.
  • Karl E. Downs Papers, part of the Huston-Tillotson University Digital Archives.
  • Otto Nall, ed. Vital Religion: A Crusading Church Faces Its Third Century (The Methodist Book Concern, 1938).
  • Otto Nall, ed. Christian Fellowship in a World of Conflict (National Council of Methodist Youth, 1938).
  • Karl Downs, “Timid Negro Students,” The Crisis, June 1936.
  • Karl Downs, “Did My Church Forsake Me?” Zion’s Herald, March 9, 1938.
  • Karl Downs, Meet The Negro (Methodist Youth Fellowship, 1943).