Dr. Harry Edwards: Still a Rebel With a Cause

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When Harry Edwards organized the Olympic Project for Human Rights in the fall of 1967 – I don’t think he realized the long term effect it would have on American sports and society.

For Jackie Robinson it took his signature, for Rosa Parks it was a simple “No”, for OPHR members Tommy Smith and John Carlos it took two black gloves, beads, bare feet and balls the size of a Spalding to give us the most poignant image in the history of American sports.

This wasn’t a spur of the moment occurrence, it was a very well-calculated move made by Edwards to show the world on its most “harmonic” stage that the Black Athlete is the by product of the Civil Rights nightmare in America. These athletes were facing the same struggles in institutions of higher learning as their parents were back in their hometown soda shops. The fact that they were participating in the Mexico City Olympics was irrelevant.

From Jack Johnson to Barry Bonds, the Black Athlete has been the object of ridicule, jealousy and flat out fear from his white counterparts. Bill Russell endured his home being vandalized over and over while winning 11 world championships as a Boston Celtic. Jim Brown still lives with the stigma of allegedly shoving a white woman off of a balcony, an accusation that even she to this day denies. Muhammad Ali being stripped of his heavyweight title for choosing not to partake in the Viet Nam conflict for religious reasons. In one of the greatest quotes of the 20th Century, Ali confirmed his reason for flipping Uncle Sam off was because, “No Viet Cong ever called me a nigger.” I wonder if Ali had never chosen to join the Nation of Islam would he have ever been drafted. White America had a problem with Ali, not because he was Black, but because he was Black and fully conscious of the social, economical and educational injustices his people were dealing with.

No decade has had a larger impact on our lives than the 1960’s. The revolution was televised and brought into our homes daily; raw and uncut. Police dogs, fire hoses and billy clubs were the norm during the 6pm news and our people were on the short end of the stick – literally. The Black Man’s days of shucking and jiving were over; Steppin Fetchit was replaced with Gil Scott Heron – battle lines were drawn.

Dr. Edwards has been in the forefront of Race and Sports in America for over four decades now. When white America couldn’t understand how O.J. Simpson could turn his back on the Black community Dr. Edwards was quick to offer answers. When they wanted to know what separates today’s Black Athlete from those athletes of the 1960’s, Dr. Edwards gave them an earful. And when a psycho-analysis of Terrell Owens was needed they paged Dr. Edwards.

The seeds of social conscience were planted early in his life – raised in East St. Louis; Edwards credits internal focus and perseverance for his escape from the ghetto. An exceptional athlete, Edwards was awarded an athletic scholarship to San Jose State University. There he witnessed firsthand the racial inequities on campus and how it extended into the classroom. Dr. Edwards tells David Leonard in an interview how Blacks were limited in what they were allowed to study. “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.” Segregation stretched beyond the classroom; Black students were not allowed to be housed in facilities approved by the University in fear that the white students would move out. Blacks had no access to simple places such as the recreation hall or a restaurant on campus.

Upon graduating with honors from San Jose State, Edwards enrolled in the graduate program at Cornell University earning his Ph. D. in Sociology. He turned down tryouts with the Minnesota Vikings and San Diego Chargers to pursue his Masters. Once he earned his Ph. D., Edwards returned to San Jose State as a part-time professor. By this time the enrollment of Blacks had increased largely due to the 1966 Texas Western NCAA Basketball Championship victory over the University of Kentucky. Black Power was gaining momentum but there were still issues that concerned Edwards. Edwards now a member of the staff went through every channel to try get living and academic conditions for Black students improved, other than laughing in Edwards’ face school officials didn’t have too much to say to Edwards on these matters.

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Black Athlete’s were organized by Edwards and made aware of their purpose; make an impact – because we can. The first protest by the movement had a historical effect, it marked the first time in the 100 year history of NCAA Division I football that a game had been canceled due to an on-campus protest. Edwards began to get letters from all over from athletes who wanted to join the cause; this prompted him to travel across the country organizing what would come to be known as the Revolt of The Black Athlete. From his travels Edwards would see that the same Black athletes being denied the simplest of conditions were being counted on to represent a country that has turned a blind eye to the plight of the Black race for centuries. These Athletes were being asked to overlook 400 years of suffering for just a few weeks just to please “massa.”

NCAA Committee as well as the United States Olympic Committee were the culprits basically one beast with several heads that needed to be exposed.

Edwards would be more than willing to oblige.

The OPHR was out to show the world that the United States used Black Athletes to project racial harmony and equality when it was anything but that. In the mission statement of the OPHR 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?”

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The OPHR had three central demands:

1. “Restore Muhammad Ali’s title.”

2. “Remove Avery Brundage as head of the United States Olympic Committee.” A known white supremacist, Brundage sealed the deal that allowed Adolf Hitler to host the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.

3. “Disinvite South Africa and Rhodesia.” This was to express a consciousness with the Black freedom struggles in these two apartheid states.

Only the third demand was met, regardless there was widespread support by and for the athletes. 1968 was a year where the world was turned on it’s ear, by the time the Olympics rolled around the world had witnessed the U.S. forces weaken in Viet Nam, The Prague Spring where Czech students challenged the Stalinist tanks, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the uprisings in urban cities across the country, and the emergence of the Black Panther Party. In Mexico City ten days before start of the Olympics, Mexico security forces massacred hundreds of students occupying the National University.
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The Mexico City games got off without a hitch; but on the second day one of the most enduring images in American sports history would be etched into the world’s conscience.

Smith and Carlos took their stand after Smith set a world record. While both were on the stand Smith took out the gloves as the flag was being raised up the pole and the national anthem played, Carlos and Smith 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.

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Definitely Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos.

The magnitude of this effected Australian silver medalist Peter Norman to the point that he went into the stands to get an OPHR patch in a show of support. (Peter Norman recently passed away – Smith and Carlos were pallbearers at his funeral) The Olympic Crew team mostly white and from Harvard issued this statement; “We – as individuals – have been concerned about the place of the Black Man in American society in their struggle for equal rights. As members of the US Olympic team, each of us has come to feel a moral commitment to support our Black teammates in their efforts to dramatize the injustices and inequities which permeate our society.” Not everyone that supported this movement was a Black male; one of the flaws that Edwards pointed out was that women and other non-Black supporters would not have been shut out of the movement.

Smith and Carlos were stripped of their medals and removed from the Olympic village. Brundage justified their expulsion by saying, “They violated one of the basic principles of the Olympic Games: that politics play no part whatsoever in them.”

And I guess Hitler claiming that the Germans were a master race had no social or political undertone?

For the past three decades Dr. Edwards has been somewhat busy. He has worked in the Commissioners office of Major League Baseball, he was a consultant for the Golden State Warriors but most of us know him from his days as a special consultant for the San Francisco 49’ers. Edwards recently eulogized former 49’er coach Bill Walsh this year. He is a quote machine who will say what is exactly on his mind. What struck me in listening to Dr. Edwards is his command of the English language, Edwards baritone voice comes off with a confidence and authority that borders on hearing your father or your favorite fire and brimstone preacher. He has continued to fight for social and racial equality for Blacks in all areas of society. He is most questioned about the Black Athlete; where he has come from and where he is headed. He talks about the image conscious athlete of today as opposed to the socially aware athlete of yesterday. Today’s athlete would compromise his Blackness in order to keep his Nike contract while yesterdays athlete was lucky to find a shoe store that would even service him. In an interview with Terrence Green, Edwards gives a chilling thought to where we’re headed as a people. “I see the same future for the Black Athlete (and for other Blacks in sports) that I see for the Black masses; we are not going anywhere that the Black masses not only cannot go, but that Black masses do not provide a foundation for. We are at the end of the golden age of the Black Athlete, thanks to such phenomena as NCAA propositions 48, 16, and 42. Such phenomena as the homicide rate among young Black males ages 15-29 in a traditional Black community; and such phenomena as a quarter of all Black males ages 15-29 are under the control of the judicial system – either incarcerated, under indictment or probation. The age group impacted by AIDS, and suicide in that age group, also happens to be from which athletes are drawn.” He continues, “We are at the very end of the golden age of the Black Athlete, which lasted approximately fifty years.” It began in 1947 when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball. It possibly ended when Michael Jordan retired early in 1999.

If that’s the case – we may need to summon Dr. Edwards for another fire and brimstone sermon.

34 Responses to “Dr. Harry Edwards: Still a Rebel With a Cause”

  1. TBR,

    Again, nice article. Thanks for sharing. We must never forget history and you my friend are making sure of that.

  2. thebrotherreport Says:

    Thanks for reading.

  3. Great piece! Dr. Edwards is truly a great man.

  4. thebrotherreport Says:

    Here is the link to Dr. Edwards eulogizing Bill Walsh.

    http://video.nbc11.com/player/?id=141753

  5. “We are at the very end of the golden age of the Black Athlete, which lasted approximately fifty years.”

    It may very well be so, but in the big picture is that a bad thing? It is the hue-man nature to adapt to different environment and circumstances. In fact, it is the nature of all biologcal beings to adapt thus. Those too slow to adapt dies. Before the advent of the golden age we wewre doing very well in some areas, amongst ourselves. Even with lynching, jim crow and the like, we were progressing better comparitively to today.

    This was because we had to work to LIVE! Not live to play. When we set out to protest they gave us jobs, money, entertainment contracts and white women/men.

    Yes! the sixties were a time not just for the African revolution but for all revolutionary thoughts and actions. The problem was we forgot how and why we were where we were. We forgot how it was to be treated worse than dogs.

    I am glad to be a child of the sixties, because memories have tongues!

  6. thebrotherreport Says:

    Amen.

  7. Once again brotha Sankofa well said.

  8. Yeah that last statement is the truest.

  9. thebrotherreport Says:

    The fact that we’ve forgotten is sickening. The opening speech in P.E.’s “Night of the Living Baseheads” comes to mind

  10. Have you forgotten that once we were brought here, we were robbed of our name? Robbed of our language? We lost our religion, our culture, our God! And many of us, by the way we act….we even lost our minds….

  11. thebrotherreport Says:

    Zactly!

  12. HarveyDent Says:

    The end of the so-called golden age of the Black athlete is not a bad thing per se but the reasons for it are particularly the homicide rate among young Black men. That’s going to impact us as a people far more than seeing less Black faces on the court or gridiron. I read more about the skyrocketing murder rate in Philly than I do about the Eagles and Sixers and it truly sickens and frightens me that all that potential is being wasted over the most trivial of things.

    The solutions are the same as they ever were. Better education, more economic oppurtunities, stable homes, et. al. but I think something more impactful needs to be done though. However, these problems didn’t spring up overnight so it will probably take just as long for positive change to take root and the difference to be made because it could be one of ours who could be the next one to be taken down.

  13. Yes brotha harvey it is sad and needs to stop. But also remember that these murder rates for blacks are actually lower then they were in the 70s. Go back and look at the murder rates for blacks in the city of philly during the 70s.

  14. Still Harvey Dent, Origin, the loss of one by murder is one too many. What we need is a rights of passage program, outside of the educational killing fields.

    There are more than enugh grass roots organization hat are or can provide that. Maybe we as individual should and could investigate such a program. I have done such before…but within an institutional settings to disasterous result. I am in the process of doing it again.

  15. I don’t disagree brotha sankofa. I am just tired of the sky is falling mentality from the media. They say black folks are less educated and are more even poor then they were in the 60s and 70s. Yet the current group of black americans are the most educated and have the biggest disposable income of any generation.

    If you look as a people where we have come from. We have made great strides. Yet no one talks about this. Compare black income, murder rates, and education today to the 60s and 70s. It is a drastic change. Yet if you listen to the media they will have you believe that blacks haven’t gained or done sh$%.

    Thats all I was saying.

    But the sH%$ thats going on in cities like Philly is sick and needs to stop.
    Point blank……………one sista or brothas death is one too many.

  16. Good conversation.

    So what do we do about this problem? Children today have lack of respect,lack knowledge of history and seem to not have a thirst for education. This can be said of children from all races. The problem is black children are already starting out behind.

  17. My initial foray into Pan Africanism included studying the works of Jawanza Kunjufu and Mulana Karenga. From there I became deeply involved after my first African Holistic retreat, where the idea of the rights of passage manifested.

    Unlike some who romantisize rights of passage, when I and some brethrens inried t introduce this in the school system, we attempted to integrate a varied set of dynamics that had garanteed to pull the lost youth into the fold.

    I had designed a program that included, Martial Arts and Martial Arts discipline ( which was very important) rapping, nutrition, drumming, mathematics, theater, a toast masters type of program, and a bevy of strong and compelling interests.

    The only probelem was they were strong and compelling. So using the excuse of pouring libation and remembering the ancestors as a leading to the daily program, the school board claimed that wanted to separate religeon and secularism. So the project died. This was 1994.

    I am saying each of us need to get at least 3-5 others to form a group and develop and expand on a similar program, then connect with others doing similar or close program in spirit. We can’t worry about the one that have strayed, lets work on the ones that have not-at least in the begining.

    This is a society that values you only if you come with endorsment from people they are influenced by. So if we can prove to the strayed ones what we have done, if we can develop a community based value system, mix in a little of the UNIA-NOI paradigm, we then have an opportunity to reach out to them as well.

    The UNIA_NOI paradigm I speak of, includes uplifting the youth while protecting them from harm, i.e. chasing the dealers of the block, having a block watch program, beautifying the neighborhood, isolating business owners of all races, that sell us shit and treat us like same and direct the community to those that work in our best interest.

    Encourage the churches and mosque into working with us for a mutual and benificial end. I am just throwing out ideas that have personally worked and some I have seen in action.

    Right now there is a brother up in Cleveland name Paul Hill, who is doing a rights of passage progrm…check him out, he can provide us with some ideas.

  18. If this Black man, Mr. Harry Edwards is such a good person in his own rights, why would he deny a young Black youth football coach a right to clear up past for a better future, By dropping a civil suit Oct. 07 in Fremont CA.???? The others in America are not the only ones holding young Black men back from a bright future.

  19. I enjoyed our conversation at the Shell Gas Station in Fremont on Paseo Padre Parkway/Stevenson Boulevard. I hope you can come to my job the TAP Center for HUSD 2560-Darwin Street Hayward, CA 94545 (510)783-7589 fax THANK YOU for that wonderful conversation that YOU CANNOT SAVE EVERYBODY, ONLY THOSE WHO WANT TO BE SAVED!!!!!!!

  20. Maxine Charles Says:

    I am really trying to reach Professor Edwards I took his class back in the late seventies. I need his help for a symposium. Please contact me.
    Thanks.

  21. lynel Gardner Says:

    Hi, I would like to ask Professor Edwards if he could contact me about providing some source material about my Grandfather Sonny Liston.

    Thank You

  22. lynel Gardner Says:

    Hi, I’m writing a book about my Grandfather Sonny Listo and I would like to know if you have any source material that I can use for the book.

  23. Brent Carlson Says:

    Thanks for explanation of a black athlete. You are the one and apparent one that knows “everything” to be a black athlete or include yourself in management of sports today. You know the best way for the Black man or woman to excel in our United States. and in management and elsewhere. Your Voice carries now with My own silence as a white person… It is your perogative.

  24. todd lee Says:

    dr harry edwards i would ask for your help and or advice with fbi harrasment i am esperenceing

  25. Moses Easley Says:

    Dr. Edwards could you refer me to information about Division I football boycotts in the 60’s

  26. Maxine Charles Says:

    Well Folks,
    I am still waiting to hear back from Professor Edwards. We are reaching out to the young adults in our community – allowing them to have dialogue with wonderful role models; Professor Edwards is indeed a role model. Hope to receive a response soon.

  27. [...] man, his likeness is recognized in the most remote corners of the earth. He would usher in what Dr. Harry Edwards would term, “The Golden Age of the Black Athlete.” He is part Jack Johnson, part Joe [...]

  28. [...] After Cassius Clay defeated Sonny Liston to capture the heavyweighht title, reports were confirmed that he had joined the Nation of Islam, and would now be known and referred to as Muhammad Ali. [...]

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  34. [...] the entire team of Black athletes embraced the strategies of their sociologist major and friend, Harry Edwards to completely boycott the games, world wide attention would have been thrust upon the fact that [...]

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