When Harry Edwards organized the Olympic Project for Human Rights in the fall of 1967—I don’t think he realized the long-term effect it would have on American sports and society.
For Jackie Robinson it took his signature, for Rosa Parks it was a simple “no”, for OPHR members Tommy Smith and John Carlos it took two black gloves, beads, bare feet and balls the size of a Spalding to give us the most poignant image in the history of American sports.
This wasn’t a spur of the moment occurrence, it was a very well calculated move made by Edwards to show the world on its most “harmonic” stage that the Black Athlete is the byproduct of the Civil Rights nightmare in America. These athletes were facing the same struggles in institutions of higher learning as their parents were back in their hometown soda shops. The fact that they were participating in the Mexico City Olympics was irrelevant.
From Jack Johnson to Barry Bonds, the black athlete has been the object of ridicule, jealousy and flat out hate from his white counterparts. Bill Russell endured his home being vandalized over and over while winning 11 world championships as a Boston Celtic.
Jim Brown still lives with the stigma of allegedly shoving a white woman off of a balcony, an accusation that even she to this day denies. Muhammad Ali being stripped of his heavyweight title for choosing not to partake in the Vietnam conflict for religious reasons.
Ali confirmed his reason for flipping Uncle Sam off was because, “No Viet Cong ever called me a ni**er.” I wonder if Ali had never chosen to join the Nation of Islam would he have ever been drafted.
White America had a problem with Ali, not because he was black, but because he was black and fully conscious of the social, economical and educational injustices his people were dealing with.
No decade has had a larger impact on our lives than the 1960s. The revolution was televised and brought into our homes daily; raw and uncut. Police dogs, fire hoses and billy clubs were the norm during the 6 p.m. news and our people were on the short end of the stick—literally. The black man’s days of shucking and jiving were over.
Dr. Edwards has been in the forefront of race and sports in America for over four decades now. When white America couldn’t understand how O.J. Simpson could turn his back on the black community Dr. Edwards was quick to offer answers.
When they wanted to know what separates today’s black athlete from those athletes of the 1960s, Dr. Edwards gave them an earful. And when a psychoanalysis of Terrell Owens was needed they paged Dr. Edwards.
The seeds of social conscience were planted early in his life—raised in East St. Louis; Edwards credits internal focus and perseverance for his escape from the ghetto. An exceptional athlete, Edwards was awarded an athletic scholarship to San Jose State University.
There he witnessed firsthand the racial inequities on campus and how it extended into the classroom.
Dr. Edwards tells David Leonard in an interview how blacks were limited in what they were allowed to study: “If blacks wanted to major in something outside of social welfare, physical education or criminology, they had to go through all kinds of changes. In order to major in sociology, I had to petition. The basic wisdom was that blacks were natural athletes so we could cut it in physical education. Blacks could study social welfare or criminology, because we were always going to be criminals and welfare recipients. But we weren’t allowed the same freedom to enroll in sociology, a more academically challenging and less 'applied' field.”
Segregation stretched beyond the classroom; black students were not allowed to be housed in facilities approved by the University in fear that the white students would move out. Blacks had no access to simple places such as the recreation hall or a restaurant on campus.
Upon graduating with honors from San Jose State, Edwards enrolled in the graduate program at Cornell University earning his Ph. D. in Sociology. He turned down tryouts with the Minnesota Vikings and San Diego Chargers to pursue his Masters.
Once he earned his Ph. D., Edwards returned to San Jose State as a part-time professor. By this time the enrollment of blacks had increased largely due to the 1966 Texas Western NCAA Basketball Championship victory over the University of Kentucky.
Black Power was gaining momentum but there were still issues that concerned Edwards. He now a member of the staff, went through every channel to try get living and academic conditions for black students improved, other than laughing in Edwards’ face school officials didn’t have too much to say to Edwards on these matters
Black athletes were organized by Edwards and made aware of their purpose; make an impact—because we can.
The first protest by the movement had a historical effect, it marked the first time in the 100-year history of NCAA Division I football that a game had been canceled due to an on-campus protest. Edwards began to get letters from all over from athletes who wanted to join the cause; this prompted him to travel across the country organizing what would come to be known as the Revolt of The Black Athlete.
From his travels Edwards would see that the same black athletes being denied the simplest of conditions were being counted on to represent a country that has turned a blind eye to the plight of the black race for centuries. These athletes were being asked to overlook 400 years of suffering for just a few weeks just to please “massa.”
The NCAA Committee as well as the United States Olympic Committee were the culprits. They were together basically one beast with several heads that needed to be exposed.
Edwards would be more than willing to oblige.
The OPHR was out to show the world that the United States used black athletes to project racial harmony and equality when it was anything but that.
In the mission statement of the OPHR Edwards wrote: “We must no longer allow this country to use a few so called Negroes to point out to the world how much progress she has made in solving her racial problems when the oppression of Afro-Americans is greater than it ever was.
"We must no longer allow the sports world to pat itself on the back as a citadel of racial justice when the racial injustices of the sports world are infamously legendary...any black person who allows himself to be used in the above manner is a traitor because he allows racist whites the luxury of resting assured that those black people in the ghettos are there because that is where they want to be. So we ask why should we run in Mexico only to crawl home?”
The OPHR had three central demands:
1. “Restore Muhammad Ali’s title.”
2. “Remove Avery Brundage as head of the United States Olympic Committee.” A known white supremacist, Brundage sealed the deal that allowed Adolf Hitler to host the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.
3. “Uninvite South Africa and Rhodesia.” This was to express a consciousness with the black freedom struggles in these two apartheid states.
Only the third demand was met, regardless that there was widespread support by and for the athletes.
1968 was a year where the world was turned on its ear. By the time the Olympics rolled around the world had witnessed the U.S. forces weaken in Vietnam, the Prague Spring where Czech students challenged the Stalinist tanks, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the uprisings in urban cities across the country, and the emergence of the Black Panther Party.
In Mexico City 10 days before start of the Olympics, Mexico security forces massacred hundreds of students occupying the National University.
The Mexico City games got off without a hitch; but on the second day one of the most enduring images in American sports history would be etched into the world’s conscience.
Smith and Carlos took their stand after Smith set a world record. While both were on the stand Smith took out the gloves as the flag was being raised up the pole and the national anthem played, Carlos and Smith bowed their heads and raised their fists in a Black Power salute. They also wore no shoes to symbolize black poverty and beads to protest lynching.
Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos.
The magnitude of this effected Australian silver medalist Peter Norman to the point that he went into the stands to get an OPHR patch in show of support. (Peter Norman recently passed away—Smith and Carlos were pallbearers at his funeral)
The Olympic Crew team mostly white and from Harvard issued this statement: “We—as individuals—have been concerned about the place of the black man in American society in their struggle for equal rights. As members of the US Olympic team, each of us has come to feel a moral commitment to support our black teammates in their efforts to dramatize the injustices and inequities which permeate our society.”
Not everyone that supported this movement was a black male; one of the flaws that Edwards pointed out was that women and other non-Black supporters would not have been shut out of the movement.
One of the great misnomers is that people of color were in this alone. Not so, many whites marched, fought and died for the cause of Civil Rights, it is something that is not mentioned much but needs to be pointed out.
Smith and Carlos were stripped of their medals and removed from the Olympic Village.
Brundage justified their expulsion by saying, “They violated one of the basic principles of the Olympic Games: that politics play no part whatsoever in them.”
And I guess Hitler claiming that the Germans were the master race had no social or political undertone?
For the past three decades Dr. Edwards has been somewhat busy. He has worked in the Commissioners office of Major League Baseball, he was a consultant for the Golden State Warriors but most of us know him from his days as a special consultant for the San Francisco 49ers.
Edwards eulogized former 49ers' coach Bill Walsh this year. He is a quote machine who will say what is exactly on his mind.
What struck me in listening to Dr. Edwards is his command of the English language. Edwards' baritone voice comes off with a confidence and authority that borders on hearing your father or your favorite fire and brimstone preacher.
He has continued to fight for social and racial equality for blacks in all areas of society. He is most questioned about the black athlete; where he has come from and where he is headed. He talks about the image conscious athlete of today as opposed to the socially aware athlete of yesterday.
Today’s athlete would compromise his blackness in order to keep his Nike contract while yesterdays athlete was lucky to find a shoe store that would even service him.
In an interview with Terrence Green, Edwards gives a chilling thought to where we’re headed as a people: “I see the same future for the black athlete (and for other blacks in sports) that I see for the black masses; we are not going anywhere that the black masses not only cannot go, but that black masses do not provide a foundation for. We are at the end of the golden age of the black athlete, thanks to such phenomena as NCAA propositions 48, 16, and 42.
"Such phenomena as the homicide rate among young black males ages 15-29 in a traditional black community; and such phenomena as a quarter of all black males ages 15-29 are under the control of the judicial system—either incarcerated, under indictment or probation. The age group impacted by AIDS, and suicide in that age group, also happens to be from which athletes are drawn.”
He continues, “We are at the very end of the golden age of the black athlete, which lasted approximately 50 years.”
It began in 1947 when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball. It possibly ended when Michael Jordan retired early in 1999.
If that’s the case—we may need to summon Dr. Edwards for another fire and brimstone sermon.