Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

More Than a Game: Black Athletes Have Shown the Way for Sports Activism

Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

More Than a Game: Black Athletes Have Shown the Way for Sports Activism

Article excerpt

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DURING THE 1960S, sports sociologist Harry Edwards helped found the Olympic Project for Human Rights which called for, among other things, a boycott of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics to protest racism in sports and society. The boycott was called off, but athletes were still encouraged to protest. During their time on the medal stand, African-American sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their arms in a black-power salute. Edwards, author of Revolt of the Black Athlete and Sociology of Sport, talked with Dave Zirin (www.edgeof sports.com) about the impact of that action, as well as what sports tells us about U.S. society.

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Dave Zirin: I was surprised at the level of fanfare last year about the anniversary of the human rights protests at the 1968 Olympics. Why do you think it resonates so many decades later?

Harry Edwards: One, you had a group of young men--I was 24, I think John Carlos was 23, Tommie Smith was 24, Lee Evans was 21--and we determined that we could impact the course of events through American society, maybe throughout the world, through athletics, something that many people considered the toy department of human affairs, especially with the burgeoning civil rights movement going on, the anti-war movement, the student movement, and so forth.

The second part was that the impact of the movement culminating in a demonstration in Mexico City was part of a more general effort during that period that involved everybody from Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Bill Russell, Curt Flood, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar--you had a whole generation of people involved in what came to be known as the revolt of the black athlete. So it was an iconic, emblematic commemoration of an era, and I think Carlos and Smith epitomized the basic questions we raised at that time.

Are there takeaway lessons for activists and athletes today?

Absolutely. First, you have to do your homework. We knew we would not have any unified, uniform boycott of the games. You had people like Mel Pender and Charlie Greene who were in the military, whose duty it was to run. You had people from the African-American schools, the historically black schools, Ralph Boston and others whose coaches and administrators let them know that if they were identified with the movement not only would they be out of athletics, they'd be out of school. Only 26 percent of women at the schools had athletic scholarships, so we knew we couldn't get them involved. At the end of the day, we had to do our homework.

The second point is that we raised fundamental questions. If we cannot be head coach, how are we ever going to be head of state? How are we ever going to be governor? We can't live in a frat house because of anti-Negro rules, which is approved housing on many campuses, but if we're segregated then, how are we ever going to live in a state house? Why should we play where we can't work? If [athletic directors] never interviewed a black for head coach, what does that say about their perspective on us as athletes--bringing at that time hundreds of thousands of dollars into the schools?

You want to do your homework and raise fundamental questions within the context of the American constitutional structure on issues of human rights, which is why the effort was called the Olympic Project for Human Rights--not civil rights, but for human rights.

We were influenced by Malcolm X's philosophical perspectives--of a shift from civil rights to human rights--and I think the point he made was eventually taken up by Dr. …

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