Hiltzik: Of IBM, Ralph Bunche, and the Masters

As the first threesome prepares to tee off at the Masters Tournament this morning, it's proper to keep the spotlight on the tournament's biggest commercial sponsors--AT&T, Exxon Mobil, and IBM--for their complicity in the unsavory history of discrimination at the hosting Augusta National Golf Club. 

IBM has gotten most of the heat, because its new CEO, Virginia Rometty, would be most obviously disadvantaged by the club's men-only membership policy. Club Chairman Billy Payne refused to discuss membership issues at his annual press conference Wednesday, leaving it a mystery whether or when the club would reconsider its membership stance.

Some in the golf world suspect that it might have already changed, and that we won't know until the first woman, Rometty or someone else, quietly shows up on the course wearing the members-only green jacket. But will that wipe out the 80-year history of discriminiation at the club? (It admitted its first black member in 1990.) 

To see how far America has regressed in its tolerance of intolerance, consider the public reaction to a decision by New York's West Side Tennis Club, host of the Davis Cup matches and the Forest Hills tournament, to deny membership to Ralph Bunche, the distinguished African-American diplomat, in 1957. (Hat-tip to Esquire's Charles Pierce.)

According to Bunche biographer Charles P. Henry, Bunche made a public stink over the rebuff, sending his notes of his conversation with the club's president to the newspapers. The result was a public furor. (They understood discrimination better in those days.) The issue reached the floor of the US Senate, where Sens. Jacob Javits and John F. Kennedy, among others, assailed the club.  The US Lawn Tennis Association registered its disapproval. Are you listening, PGA?) NBC considered dropping its telecast of club-sponsored tournaments. (Are you listening, CBS?)

In the end, the tennis club backed off, and apologetically offered Bunche a membership. 

He turned them down. 

Related stories:

Hiltzik: Teed off at Augusta's men-only policy

Augusta boss silent on membership issue 

Augusta National's woman problem

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