Sunday 21 January 2018

Tommy Conlon: Let's salute a man who has done so much to fight racism

Dr. Harry Edwards of the San Francisco 49ers. Photo: Getty
Dr. Harry Edwards of the San Francisco 49ers. Photo: Getty

Tommy Conlon

Standing 6ft 8in and closer to 20 stone than ten, Harry Edwards at 74 still carries the towering physical authority of the star sportsman he once was.

When he steps up to the lectern, however, it is his moral authority that is unmistakeable. Anyone with a passing interest in the history of American sport will know of his seminal role in the civil rights struggle for black athletes over the last 50 years.

When John Carlos and Tommie Smith famously raised a gloved fist at the Mexico Olympics, it became a moment in time. Its pure symbolic power has resonated down the decades to this day.

It would not have happened without Edwards. He was the prime thinker and organiser behind the campaign for equality in US sport, knowing that it would complement the broader movement then burgeoning under Martin Luther King, and understanding that the mass popular appeal of games could be harnessed for meaningful reform.

Dr Edwards was the keynote speaker last Saturday at the GAA Museum's summer school on sport and politics in Croke Park. Afterwards he signed copies of his newly re-published book The Revolt of the Black Athlete. It would be a useful addition to any syllabus for students of American politics or of journalism and in particular sports journalism.

This is the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Olympic Project for Human Rights. Dr Edwards is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. In 1967 he was a lecturer in sociology at San José State College (SJSC) in California, having studied there on an athlete scholarship. He grew up in East St Louis; his father had served ten years in an Illinois state prison. Dr Edwards had held a national record in the discus and had been on the draft roster of two American football clubs. He had also been scouted by the LA Lakers for his basketball prowess.

Academia became his calling, in particular the study of 'the interface of sports, race and society'.

He didn't have to look far to find the interface. The racism against African-American athletes on campus was overt and ubiquitous. The SJSC American football programme, as in many universities, was important in terms of finance and prestige. Edwards "determined to 'leverage' black athlete power potential as the central strategy of an effort to force progressive institutional change".

He and other students formed an organisation, United Black Students for Action. They compiled a list of demands. They organised rallies and membership drives. Then they brought out the big stick: a boycott, in September '67, of the first college game of the season. The game was called off. It cost the college and broader San José business community an estimated $100,000 in lost revenue.

It was, writes Edwards, "the first time in NCAA history that a Division 1 sports event had been cancelled due to racial turmoil at a member institution".

The panic-stricken governors of SJSC moved to meet many of their demands. Other colleges such as Berkeley, University of Washington and University of Texas, El Paso, were challenged to introduce similar reforms. Shaken by events at SJSC, they duly did.

Tommie Smith was then a student at SJSC, attending classes by Edwards on race relations. A world-class sprinter, he held numerous international track records. Both men were on the receiving end of vicious hate mail for their actions, including multiple death threats. Undeterred, and with Mexico '68 a year away, they raised the stakes. They and others founded the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR). It faced enormous challenges, logistical, political and financial. It had no full-time staff; Edwards funded it out of his salary.

Buoyed by their domestic successes, the OPHR directly challenged the International Olympic Committee and its president, the widely reviled Avery Brundage. In concert with campaigning groups at home and abroad, they demanded that South Africa be banned from the '68 Games. Fearing an international boycott by black athletes, the IOC capitulated.

Smith won gold in the 200m at Mexico; Carlos won bronze. They stepped up to the podium for the victory ceremony, without wearing shoes. They both wore the official badge of the OPHR on their tracksuit tops. Their medals hung on their chests. The first notes of The Star Spangled Banner sounded. The duo bowed their heads; Smith raised his right fist, Carlos his left.

The gesture outraged middle America; it electrified global coverage of the Games. It has since entered the pantheon of protest iconography, not just in the USA, but as an inspirational symbol of courage and dignity around the world.

Almost 50 years later, Edwards takes a historical perspective in the afterword to his book. It disinclines him from any romantic notion of the 'Black Power' salute as a definitive sea change. American society, he argues, remains profoundly unequal. The current 'Black Lives Matter' movement is proof of that.

In sport there is the case of Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback who cannot currently get a job at any NFL club, seemingly because of his public stance as a conscientious objector to societal racism.

"All pretence," writes Dr Edwards, "of permanence in the gains and achievements of struggle is always in some substantial measure illusion and self-delusion." If he takes any comfort from his own time in the front line along with his comrades, it is that they were "on the right side of history all along, that they fought the good fight".

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