Meet St. Louis native Harry Edwards, the man behind the Black Power protest at the ’68 Olympics | St. Louis Public Radio

Meet St. Louis native Harry Edwards, the man behind the Black Power protest at the ’68 Olympics

Feb 24, 2017

No one who speaks out has ever been welcomed with open arms, for the most part, even when people say things like ‘I understand the message.’ The reality is that silence has been evil’s greatest and most consistently dependable ally.

So said Dr. Harry Edwards, a prominent sociologist who specialized his research and activism in the areas of sport, race and protest, on Friday’s St. Louis on the Air. He has also written several books, including “Revolt of the Black Athlete” and “The Struggle that Must Be.”

Edwards also happens to be a St. Louis native.

Edwards knows first-hand that the statement above is as true now as it ever has been. While a professor at San Jose State University in the 1960s, Edwards led an organization you may have heard of: The Olympic Project for Human Rights.

That project called for a black athlete boycott of the 1968 U.S. Olympic team in order to draw attention to racial inequity and barriers confronting black athletes in sports.

While the full boycott never came to be, it was Edwards who, along with the rest of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, crafted one of the most iconic sports moments of all time: The podium protest of Tommie Smith and John Carlos. Smith and Carlos were both San Jose State sprinters who won first and third place in the 200m, giving the Black Power salute at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City.

Want the full history of that moment? You can watch a documentary here.

Gold medalist Tommie Smith (center) and bronze medalist John Carlos (right) showing the raised fist on the podium after the 200 m race at the 1968 Summer Olympics; both wear Olympic Project for Human Rights badges. Peter Norman (silver medalist, left) from Australia also wears an OPHR badge in solidarity with Smith and Carlos.
Credit Angelo Cozzi | Wikimedia Commons

On Friday’s St. Louis on the Air, Edwards joined host Don Marsh to discuss his history of activism, his study of sport, race and protest sociology and the current wave of protest nationwide.

Edwards was born in St. Louis in 1942 but soon thereafter moved to East St. Louis, where he grew up and would go on to become a star athlete at East St. Louis High. He graduated in 1960 and was awarded an athletic scholarship to San Jose State University.

There, he graduated with honors and was awarded a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship to Cornell University, where he completed an M.A. and a Ph.D. in sociology. From 1970 to 2001, he was a professor at the University of California Berkley and now has the role of professor emeritus.

A recent wave of sports protest has given Edwards much to chew on, such as San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s taking a knee during the National Anthem. Other protests have distinctly hometown ties, such as the (formerly) St. Louis Rams’ players’ “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” salute after Michael Brown’s death and the Mizzou football players’ protest of campus racism.

Edwards calls this the fourth wave of modern sports protest and that a fifth wave of such protest is “well on this side of the athletic-political horizon.”

“It was always clear there were ongoing waves of athletic activism, framed up by historical developments of the moment,” Edwards said. “Whether abject segregation with Jack Johnson, Jesse Owens and Joe Lewis; whether an effort to desegregate with Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, Kenny Washington and Chuck Cooper; whether the Black Power Movement, which instituted a new frame of reference beyond the Civil Rights and desegregation effort. We’re now in a fourth wave that was framed up by the Black Lives Matter movement.”

He said the difference between sports protest today and the sports protest of yesteryear is that athletes, who make multimillion dollars per year, are “walking corporations and have the ability to exercise economic and political power.”

That doesn’t lessen those athletes’ courage for standing up for what they believe in, Edwards said.

“African American athletes are still black in America,” he said. “You still risk everything, including your life. It takes a tremendous amount of courage to make a statement when people say: ‘play the sport, entertain me, sit down, shut up.’ … It is not that we haven’t made progress; we obviously have. It is just that there are no final victories because the dynamics of the developments at the interface of sports, race and society continue to evolve and change.”

By the same token, the sacrifices of athletes from time gone by should not be forgotten, Edwards said.

“Bill Russell and Jim Brown as well as Smith and Carlos lost everything,” Edwards said. “Ali lost three prime years in his boxing career. Arthur Ash was reviled for his stand on apartheid and American support for it. Curt Flood put everything on the line when he refused to be traded by the St. Louis Cardinals to another team against his will and interest.

"That remains but the major difference today is that it has flipped. These athletes wield tremendous power and they put a lot on the line when they step up and speak out. Not the least of which being all of their lives. We live in some dangerous and draconian times. They have families, associates friends to be concerned about.”

"African American athletes are still black in America. You still risk everything, including your life. It takes a tremendous amount of courage to make a statement."- Harry Edwards

During the ‘60s, Edwards himself would never eat at restaurant that wasn’t serving food buffet-style because he wasn’t sure what someone might put in his food in retaliation for his visible protest organization. That’s the same advice he gave Kaepernick, who he was involved with drafting as a consultant to the 49ers.

Edwards has advocated for Kaepernick’s jersey to be placed in the Smithsonian, that’s how highly he regards his protest. He believes it was a paradigm shift in how Americans talk about the police shootings of black men, on the level of Muhammad Ali’s protest during the Vietnam War.

Edwards said that people react to sports protest the same why they react to their favorite actors or actresses making overt political statements: “That’s not what we pay you for.”

He expects to hear some of this sentiment, as well as political statements made in the arena of cinema on Sunday night with the Academy Awards. One of the films up for “Best Documentary,” “OJ: Made in America,” actually has Edwards’ stamp on it: he was interviewed and is featured in the trailer for the documentary.

He’s torn, however, between this and another documentary contender, “I Am Not Your Negro,” about James Baldwin. He said he felt privileged to have sat in a room with Baldwin and Maya Angelou, another native St. Louisan, in conversation before they died.

“I would be very, very surprised if some of the people who are exceptionally conscious, articulate, involved, and committed do not take the opportunity to make statements, particularly given this historical moment, given this particular presidential regime,” Edwards said.

Listen to the rest of the conversation with Edwards here: 

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.