Harry Edwards on fighting for black athletes and coaches, whether they like it or not

An excerpt from the new introduction to The Revolt of the Black Athlete: 50th Anniversary Edition, by Harry Edwards.

I believe that over the last fifty years, the facts, the relationships, and the conclusions drawn from them as portrayed in the original edition of this bookcharacterized as irresponsibly radical and militant at the timehave held up well, especially if considered within the context of the times and as historical prologue. Throughout the pages that follow this introduction, there are insights and analyses that to this day continue to illuminate issues at the interface of race, sport, and society.

Early on, it became abundantly clear that simply being “right” in terms of our portrayal of issues and developments at the interface of race, sport, and society was far from sufficient to persuade peopleeven many among our own peopleto our side of the arguments involved, much less to support the actions that we were advocating. From the outset, then, I had to cope with severe criticism from all sides while still keeping my eyes on the prize and continuing to articulate and pursue movement goals.

edwardsSo, when Robert (Pappy) Gault, a Negro coach with the United States Olympic boxing team in 1968, denounced the Olympic Project for Human Rights as “misguided” and me as a “militant trouble maker” bent on destroying all that had been achieved for Negroes through sports, it was of no concern, just part of the struggle. When he put a U.S. flag into George Foreman’s hand following his Olympic heavyweight boxing victory (demonstrably proving that the Olympics were political), it was of no consequencethat again, was just another sad contradiction of the Black struggle.

In the case of the boxing team, I never really had any expectations of support in the first place. The O.P.H.R. didn’t approach a single Black boxer seeking support. I mean, if not one of these Olympic boxers came out in support of former Olympic and then World Heavyweight Champion, Muhammad Ali, as had the O.P.H.R., why would the O.P.H.R. harbor any hope or expectation that they would support our movement efforts? George Foreman has often said over the years since the 1968 games that he “didn’t care then about what the O.P.H.R. was trying to do,” and that he “couldn’t care less now”despite often having complained about how he was treated upon his return from the games. He has stated that he was called (and quite wrongly so) everything from an “Uncle Tom” to a “traitor to his race,” and worse. Things got to the point that, as he recalled, he “was ashamed” to show off his Olympic gold medal. I felt badly for George and hated to hear that. But, like the consequences of “Rope-a-dope” during his “Rumble in the Jungle” championship fight against Muhammad Ali, his were largely “self-inflicted wounds.” Not only did the O.P.H.R. never politically solicit or target George Foreman concerning anything, personally I have always respected and been quite fond of him and wished him all the best. And why wouldn’t I? In waving that flag in the ring, he proved the point that the O.P.H.R. had made all along: the Olympic Games are political! In fact, to this day, in a prominent place in my home, I have a token of George’s most significant and enduring contribution not only to Black people, but to American culture and society more generally: the George Foreman Greaseless Hamburger Grill. (Now that is a contribution! I mean, think about the potential health consequencessuppose that we Americans just gave up a little bit of the grease that we ingest annually?)

Similarly, Stan Wright, the track coach at Texas Southern University in 1968 and the sprint coach of Jim Hines, Olympic 100-meter champion, was extremely caustic in his attacks on the O.P.H.R. and on me personally. He, too, alleged that my urging Black athletes to boycott and demonstrate at sporting events undermined generations of “Negro advancement through sports,” and that urging a Black boycott of the 1968 Olympics could never be justified. (Ironically, subsequent to his statements, Stan Wright himself threatened to boycott the 1972 Munich Olympics after he was “passed over” for the position of head coach of the U.S. Olympic track team and was appointed sprint coach instead. He only agreed to attend the Munich Games as an assistant coach after he was assured that he would be the head U.S. Track and Field Coach in 1976 at the Montreal Olympicswhere, by the way, he ultimately became the “fall guy” after two American sprinters and medal contenders missed their races due to a communication failure regarding the times of their events.)

And then there is the case of Will Robinson, the high school coach of basketball star Spencer Haywood. Unlike Lew Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul Jabbar), Haywood decided to participate in the 1968 Olympics as a member of the U.S. basketball team. He had been a stellar high school player in Mississippi and had subsequently emerged as the best junior-college basketball player in the country. Because there was so much discussion among Black Olympic athletesincluding basketball playersabout the Olympic Project for Human Rights in the wake of the Smith-Carlos demonstration following the 200-meter event, the U.S.O.C. sent Will Robinson to Mexico City to admonish the Black basketball players in generaland Spencer Haywood in particularnot to engage in any form of protest activity, not even to make any statement in support of such protests or of the athletes involved. Robinson’s stated position was, “You are at the Olympics to represent America, not Black people. We can deal with our race problems after the games are over.” Haywood became the star of the championship U.S. Olympic basketball contingent and returned home as the most-sought-after collegiate basketball prospect in the country. He ultimately enrolled at the University of Detroit—where his high school coach and U.S.O.C. sycophant and “go between,” Will Robinson, was also promised a job as assistant coach. In the end Robinson didn’t get the job because, according to him and at least one University of Detroit staffer, “the University of Detroit refused to hire Black coaches”a development about which he remained bitter for the rest of this life, so much so that two weeks before his death, he made a tape recording reprising his disappointment and denouncing the University of Detroit’s actions. Ironically, one of the central demands of the O.P.H.R. was that Black coaches be included in the candidates’ pool for assistant and head coaching jobs at least in the sports where we predominated as athletes: basketball, football, and track and field. As I put the issue at the time, “Why should we play as athletes where we can’t work as coaches?”

Pappy Gault, George Foreman, Stan Wright, Will Robinson, Jesse Owens, and a host of other sports figures who adamantly and often angrily disagreed with the goals and methods of the S.J.S.C. and O.P.H.R. struggles were simply dismissed as Negro detractors who, again, taught us early on that it was not enough simply to be right, even when it came to some of the very people on whose behalf we were struggling.