Architect of 1968 Olympic boycott reflects on Black athletes today

 Dr. Harry Edwards
Dr. Harry Edwards

Black athletes, then and now, are willing or unwilling tools in a college sport machine, reflected the architect of the 1968 Olympic boycott, Dr. Harry Edwards.

Edwards was undoubtedly pleased with the Missouri Black football players, who last fall announced that they’d rather sit out than play in order to bring attention to the plight of Black students on their campus.

Although it’s rare that Black players take such a bold stand, it undoubtedly was needed, and because of it, two top school officials stepped down.

Edwards, whose advocacy for Black athletes has existed for over 50 years, recently spoke with the MSR about the issue during a phone interview. He was the architect behind a protest in the fall of 1967 at San Jose State, his alma mater, that took aim at “institutionally entrenched anti-Black racism and discrimination in the policies, operations, and campus culture.”

This “entrenchment” extended into the school’s athletic department, where he once starred as a track athlete: “I knew the athletic environment. I was a scholarship athlete, myself, and set national records in the discus,” noted the retired University of California, Berkeley sociologist of this oft-overlooked fact.

The protest led to the cancellation of the school’s scheduled football game against Texas Western, which Edwards recalled “[was] the first time a game had been cancelled as a consequence of racial turmoil on a Division I campus. That sent a shot across the bow of every Division I team across the country over the next two years — over 108 campuses that had athletic revolts” such as Syracuse, Wyoming, Cal Berkeley and Oregon.

That’s why what happened last year at Mizzou — 50 years later, didn’t surprise him. “Missouri had an impact far beyond just the Columbia campus,” continued Edwards.

Schools work hard to keep Black athletes on big-time college campuses separate from the general student population. But racial unrest also affects Black students, who too often are ‘told’ to stay silent, said Edwards.

“Somewhere it has been communicated to them [that] if you want to make a political statement, go…run for office. But if you want to be on this football team, get your pads on and get out to practice,” he pointed out.

Edwards’ involvement in the Olympic Project for Human Rights in 1968 led to the iconic photo of Tommie Smith and John Carlos standing on the winners’ platform in Mexico City with black gloves and raised arms during the U.S. national anthem.

The goal for “a uniformed, unified boycott” by Black athletes was derailed by many factors, he recalled, including officials at historically Black colleges and universities, coaches and others. “Then we had the whole political argument in the African American community because the mainstream media, and much of the Black media, had been bamboozled into propagandizing the notion that African Americans had it made in sports,” he recalled.

Although Black athletes have recorded success, in the larger societal context, they “had it made no more than a chicken can produce duck eggs,” said Edwards. This is true whether they can jump to the moon, fly like the wind, or have vise-grip hands — they are still Black.

“We have to understand that this nation has the central challenge to society today: an ongoing pervasive ideology of White superiority. That has not changed since the first immigrants from Europe arrived at these shores and declared that they had discovered America with people standing on the shores watching them come off the boat,” said Edwards. “What has changed generations after generations is the guise of the struggle against that phenomenon.”

Dr. Harry Edwards also is featured in this week’s Another View as we conclude “The Shadow Side of March Madness” series. Also, look for more excerpts from our interview with Edwards in a later MSR article.

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to