What Happened to the Revolt 
of the Black Athlete? A Look Back 30 Years Later

 

John Carlos

U.S. athletes Tommie Smith (center) and John Carlos (right), star runners, raise their arms skyward in protest against racism when they receive medals at the Olympics in Mexico City in 1968. (c) 1968 AP/Wide World Photos.

An Interview with Harry Edwards by David Leonard

The world of sports has always been a venue for labor, cultural, and political issues. Athletes generate wealth and glory for team owners, governments, and communities, and often serve (or are cast) as exemplars of humanity. Seldom do athletes control the uses of their image and symbolism. Those who do rarely promote progressive politics.

David Leonard of the ColorLines editorial staff interviewed Dr. Edwards on January 26, 1998, at his Berkeley office.

What activities led to your involvement in the 1968 Olympic protest?
The 1968 Olympic protest was something that I originated. It grew out of the circumstances of blacks in sports during the 1960s. I had been a student-athlete at San Jose State and graduated from there with honors in 1964. I had won a Woodrow Wilson fellowship, and chose graduate school over tryouts with the San Diego Chargers or the Minnesota Vikings. I earned my masters degree at Cornell University and then took a part-time teaching job back at San Jose State.

All of the race-related problems that were at San Jose State when I was a student-athlete were by now exacerbated. The segregation was awful. You couldn’t live in approved housing if you were black because they were afraid white students would move out. There were restaurants we couldn’t eat in. Blacks didn’t have access to the recreation hall on campus. If you went to a dance, you almost always danced with white women because there were virtually no black women on campus. But the minute you did that you could be in big trouble. I knew athletes who believed their scholarships were taken, who were kicked off campus, because they were accused of dating a white woman.

Blacks faced academic inequities. 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. Read the article (PDF).


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