Dr. Harry Edwards
The Intellectual Militant
A Moment in Time: 1968 Olympic Games
Known as ‘A Rebel With a Cause,’ he advocates passionately for the Black athlete in professional sports
Yussuf J. Simmonds
Sentinel Managing Editor
When Dr. Harry Edwards organized the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) in the fall of 1967, he did not realize the long term effect it would have on American sports and society. According to OPHR’s mission statement, 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?'”
On the second day, one of the most enduring images in American sports history–the Summer Olympics in Mexico City–there would be a moment in time that would be etched into the world’s conscience and catapult the Black Struggle in America to another level. Tommie Smith and John Carlos took their respective positions on the Olympic stand after Smith had set a world record in the 200-meter race. While both were on the stand, Smith took out his gloves as the flag was being raised up the pole and the national anthem played. He and Carlos 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.
Their actions were a symbol of protest on behalf of America’s Black communities where rage was being played out daily across the United States; the Olympic protest had been orchestrated by Dr. Edwards, a sociologist at San Jose State University (SJSU), the institution where they were students. In the fall of 1967, Dr. Edwards had heard of the racial inequities via complaints from Black students who were unable to find affordable housing close to the campus; and he called a meeting. Ironically, the problems affected only Black male students all of whom were athletes: basketball, football and track. Those racial inequities, more than anything else, triggered the founding of OPHR.
Born November 1942, in East St. Louis, Illinois, Edwards is an imposing 6 feet, 8 inches-and-225-pound African-American, who is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. He had a tough upbringing, and early in his life, his focus was to escape the “ghetto” life that consumed much of his environment. An exceptional athlete, Edwards viewed sports as his escape route, and his athletic prowess resulted with an athletic scholarship to SJSU. What he saw there led to the birth of his intellectual militancy and provided him with a focus on the mistreatment of the Black athlete–of which he was one. Despite the fact that Edwards arrived at SJSU on a sports scholarship, his major was sociology and in order to pursue his chosen field, he had to petition the academic department of the university.
After graduating from San Jose State summa cum laude, Edwards enrolled in the graduate program at Cornell University, where he earned his Ph. D. in Sociology. As a ‘natural-looking’ athlete, he was courted by the Minnesota Vikings and San Diego Chargers football teams but turned them down to pursue his Masters. He returned to SJSU as a part-time professor after getting his Ph. D. at Cornell. This was 1966, the year after the assassination of Malcolm X, and the Black Power movement was in full swing throughout the country. As a member of the university’s staff, Edwards used his position to press for better living and academic conditions for Black students.
In one incident, Edwards organized a rally to showcase the racial inequities Black students faced and encouraged them to use an upcoming football game between SJSU and the University of Texas at El Paso to further expose the school’s discriminatory problems to the world. As a result, the game was canceled and then Governor of California, Ronald Reagan, publicly lambasted Edwards and called him a criminal, unfit to teach. Edwards responded, calling him, “a petrified pig, unfit to govern.” Of course, the Governor never thought that it was criminal for the university system to deny Black students equal housing with the White students and, as head of the state university system, he was equally responsible when Black students did not have equal access to the campus recreation hall or restaurant–the focus of Professor Edwards’ complaints and protests.
In an interview later in his career, he explained how Black students were systematically directed to certain fields of study and discouraged from pursuing other fields. (A similar example was told in the “Autobiography of Malcolm X,” where his White teacher discouraged him from becoming a lawyer and suggested instead that he should realistically pursue becoming a carpenter). What Edwards had discovered was the same ‘white’ attitude referenced in Malcolm’s book, though the subjects were different. According to Edwards, Black students at SJSU were limited in what they were allowed to ‘study,’ and alternate career paths were made conspicuously available and openly suggested. For example, social welfare, criminology and physical education were front and center on the radar for Blacks to study. The prevailing ‘white’ wisdom was that Blacks were statistically going to be welfare recipients, criminals and/or natural athletes respectively. Subjects pertaining to more academically challenging or scientific fields were discouraged.
In addition to his efforts on behalf of the Black students at SJSU, Edwards realized that the system of segregation and all its resultant effects stretched way beyond the classroom. And it was only fitting that he reached beyond the university to have a more meaningful impact. The reason he chose the Olympics as the theater of his protest is because, “The Olympics was the only international/political stage that grassroots Blacks had access to.” That is where Edwards directed his energies because not only did he realize that it was his responsibility as a Black man, to seek equality in the athletic community for his brethren, he was also a part of that community himself, as a fellow athlete. (He had a horse in that race: parity for Black athletes in general, and humanity for Black people in particular). The Black athlete represents all of America.
The OPHR started as a gentle breeze, but through the decades, it evolved into a hurricane, and even Edwards did not realize the long term effect it would have on American sports and society. At first the OPHR had three central demands:
1. “Restore Muhammad Ali’s title.” (Ali was stripped of his title for choosing not to be drafted in the military on religious grounds: He was a Muslim minister).
2. “Remove Avery Brundage as head of the United States Olympic Committee.” (He was an openly avowed white supremacist, who was instrumental in allowing Germany to host the 1936 Olympic Games).
3. “Disinvite South Africa and Rhodesia.” (At the height of the apartheid era, these two countries disallowed Blacks to participate in the Games and furthermore denied the basic fundamentals of humanity in their own country. Their struggles paralleled that of Black America).
Though Jack Johnson had long passed from the scene, Edwards used his experience to highlight the gross inequity, ridicule and hostility that the Black Athlete endured from white society while still wanting–and expecting–them to compete and excel against others on a playing field that was not level. Edwards cited numerous incidents where Black athletes were subjected to unfair treatment by the dominant society because of their race: names like Bill Russell, Jim Brown, Barry Bonds, and of course, Jack Johnson, Jackie Robinson, Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali, who was very verbal and articulate. (Part of the reason he gave for not wanting to be drafted was, “No Viet Cong ever called me a nigger.” And if Ali had not been a minister in the Nation of Islam, he would have never been drafted. But he was Black, controversial and fully conscious of the social, economical and educational injustices his people were dealing with). Edwards brought forth all of these indignities and inconsistencies.
During his career, Edwards has served as a staff consultant to the San Francisco 49ers football team and to the Golden State Warriors basketball team. He has also been involved in recruiting Black talent for front-office positions in major league baseball and was a strong proponent of Black participation in the management of professional sports. Edwards has authored several books including The Revolt of the Black Athlete, and The Struggle that Must Be; and numerous published articles for Time Magazine, Sports Illustrated, Psychology Today and Atlantic Monthly.
As a promising athlete who gave up the possibility of a career in professional sports to become a scholar instead, Edwards told Time Magazine, “We must teach our children to dream with their eyes open, for the chances of your becoming a Jerry Rice or a Magic Johnson are so slim as to be negligible. Black kids must learn to distribute their energies in a way that’s going to make them productive, contributing citizens in an increasingly high-technology society.”
He recently was the guest speaker at UCLA’s Bunche Center and at 68, is still traveling around the country advocating for better participation for Black athletes in the world of sports.