Until Friday night there was reason to doubt whether Edwards and the other militant leaders could run their own boycott—without defections or violence. The movement to boycott the NYAC meet began smoothly about a month ago. As soon as Smith and Evans began talking about it, many athletes pledged their support for the idea. Negroes from the New York area, long familiar with NYAC policies, were among the first to join. The public and Catholic school athletic leagues soon pulled out, followed by entire teams—including many white runners—from Villanova, Georgetown and Manhattan. Other athletes, trying to avoid rupturing team loyalties or offending old friends, came up with a variety of excuses not to enter. Earl McCullouch had to speak at a banquet; O. J. Simpson couldn't "fit it into my training schedule." When faced with the decisions of Bob Seagren and other U.S. teammates to compete, O.J. shrugged and said, "I don't think Bob will cross a picket line. But if he does I hope he wins. As for me, I wouldn't run that weekend if my mother was holding the meet."
As the meet approached, it became clear that the boycott would be widespread and the competition poor. Meet Director Ray Lumpp patched together a field of predominantly white athletes bolstered only by a strong foreign contingent; this too fell through when the seven-man Russian team dropped out at the last minute, and West German star Bodo Tummler didn't show up. A few top-class Negroes like Jim Hines, John Thomas and Bob Beamon remained in the entries, but they would have detracted little from the impact of the boycott if they had been left alone.
Edwards wouldn't leave them alone. He openly threatened them with retaliation by "people back in their home towns," and injected a spontaneous protest with an unnecessary atmosphere of violence. He even invited H. Rap Brown to his premeet press conference, and Rap obliged by suggesting that the Garden be blown up. This was one occasion when such flamboyant and largely empty threats could only hurt the blacks. While hundreds of athletes were boycotting because of a principle they believed in, the NYAC's defenders in the press were able to focus on the few—like Hines and Thomas—who stayed away due to threats. Anonymous phone calls to athletes by militants not connected with Edwards added to the false impression that the NYAC was a victim of intimidation rather than its own practices.
The mood was tense and explosive as the pickets gathered outside the Garden early Friday evening. The mere mention of Rap Brown's name always attracts hordes of police; although Rap never did show up, the police did—in a body that sometimes outnumbered the pickets. Ken Noel provided the first dramatic moment of the evening by standing in front of a bus at one entrance, silently-holding up the Olympic boycott poster that reads: RATHER THAN RUN AND JUMP FOR MEDALS, WE ARE STANDING UP FOR HUMANITY. WON'T YOU JOIN US? The bus driver, chauffeuring athletes from Holy Cross and Providence, was unmoved by the plea. Cursing soundlessly through the tinted-glass windshield, he inched the bus forward. Noel stood his ground as other demonstrators picked up one chant that was heard throughout the night: "Muhammad AH is our champ."
Police huddled nearby to decide what to do. The chants grew louder but the crowd remained orderly. "I can't afford to get arrested this early in the night," Noel said. "Tell me when they come to get me." They never did come. The bus finally backed out of the driveway and headed for another entrance; as the crowd cheered Noel. The runners from the bus were hustled through a side door into the Garden as the crowd followed, but no move was made to touch them. "It was a victory," said a kid near Noel, "and it didn't require any violence."
It set the tone for much of the evening. Threats and demagoguery may be part of Edwards' routine, but violence was clearly not in his plans Friday night. He marched at the front of the crowd, towering over everyone and occasionally stopping to give speeches through a megaphone provided by police. Whenever things seemed likely to get out of control, he steered the group in another direction. "Follow Harry, follow Harry," people kept yelling. "Yeah," sighed a cop, half sarcastically but half out of relief, "please follow Harry."
Several times young marchers began screaming, "Let's go inside, let's storm the damn place." Each time Edwards would give a brief speech that sounded properly militant to the kids but ended up saying, "Why get our heads busted to get in with a bunch of honkies? We're here to keep the blacks out, not to go in and join the damn whites."
Inside, there was little to see. The crowd was announced as 15,925 based on ticket sales, but the number that showed up was closer to 13,000. "It's weird," said Mays, who used his participant ticket to sneak in for a quick look. "It doesn't feel like a real meet." Richmond Flowers, the Tennessee moderate who said he participated only because he didn't want to identify with Edwards and Rap Brown, added, "Any time you field a meet without Negroes, then the great ones aren't going to be there."
Nine Negroes competed and one other, Jim Dennis of the Houston Striders, was late for the 60-yard dash after being delayed by traffic and by the pickets. "I broke my glasses when I got shoved on the way in," he said. "It wasn't a punch or anything and I'm not sure it was intentional." The other Negroes were not bothered as they crossed the picket line. Five of the Negroes were from the University of Texas at El Paso. "I asked each one if he wanted to come," said Coach Wayne Vandenburg, "and each one said yes. There was no pressure. I told them again tonight that they could back out and I'd never hold it against them." Beamon, who was obviously nervous and admitted he had come mainly for the free trip home to his family in New York, won the long jump. Frazetta Parham in the girls' high jump and Lennox Miller in the sprint were the other Negro winners.
"I am not in favor of discrimination by the New York AC," said Miller, a Jamaican, "but I don't want to be dictated to by outsiders."