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There was a time when the black members of UTEP's track team were considered the original good guys around the campus. Let the football team gripe and complain like a bunch of children; let the basketball players lament about how they were being treated like animals instead of the ebony gods that they thought they were; one could always depend on fellows like Long Jumper Bob Beamon, a 21-year-old Negro sophomore, and Dave Morgan, a feisty little ex-Marine quarter-miler, and all the other blacks on the squad. The track team was together, one solid unit. Under the direction of 26-year-old Coach Wayne Vandenburg (billed by the school's athletic department publicist as "the fastest mouth in the West"), the Miners had an outside chance to become NCAA champions, if not this year, then certainly next. The track squad was the pride of El Paso. Because of it, the once unknown school now had its second shot at a national championship in three years.
The high point of this interracial cinder romance came when the UTEP track team went to New York's Madison Square Garden for the annual New York Athletic Club track meet last February. A big boycott was on, the point of which was simple: the NYAC does not admit Negroes to its membership, but each year it makes a potful of money by exhibiting star Negroes at its track meet; why should Negro amateur athletes perform for such a cause?
When word got out that the UTEP blacks would defy the boycott and compete, militants and prominent athletes alike tightened down on them. There were threatening phone calls. Harry Edwards announced that the team members would get to New York, see the picket line and quit. Otherwise, said Edwards, he could not be responsible for anything that happened to them. Rap Brown said that Madison Square Garden ought to be blown up. "My boys were scared to death," says Coach Vandenburg. "I said to each one, 'Listen, you don't have to go through with this.' "
Why did they?
Beamon says that the Negro trackmen had long meetings and discussed the situation thoroughly. "It got down to this," he says. "The NYAC is prejudiced against a lot of different kinds of people, including Jews, and if they're that way, why should we get excited about it? What happens if we boycott and they agree to admit Negroes but they still keep out the Jews? What have we accomplished?"
If the logic is tortured, it is possibly because it conceals another more basic reason why the Negroes voted to compete. Most of them are from the Northeast. "O.K., let's admit it," says Beamon. "We hadn't been home for a long time, and we were miserable in El Paso, and here was a chance to visit our people with all expenses paid."
The black athletes of UTEP crossed the Madison Square Garden picket line and performed under intense pressure from Negro militants. The showings of Beamon and Morgan and others were understandably subpar. But when they returned to El Paso, they were heroes. They were the Negroes who had stood up to the militants. They were "our boys." "They told us, 'Great job, wonderful!' " says Dave Morgan. "They said that we really stood up for our rights."
But the New York trip started the Negroes thinking. Beamon, an introverted and melancholy young man who is tasting his first severe racial prejudice in El Paso, began engaging in long discussions with Dave Morgan and a few of the other black trackmen after the NYAC meet. Morgan, who is intelligent, older than the rest and outspoken, had come to his own decision quickly: that a stand would have to be made against some of the practices at UTEP. But Beamon, the other natural leader of the black runners and jumpers, continued to vacillate. He acted like a man who could not understand what was happening around him, like a man who stands in front of a truck and cannot assimilate the fact that it is bearing down on him. He would blurt out naive questions like: "Can you explain something to me: How can people hate each other?" and "Why is it that white people are so prejudiced against colored people?" He would sit around and write poems addressed to the white race:
How many days of sadness must I spend
Then came the assassination of Martin Luther King. It ended the vacillation and brooding and brought the Negro trackmen into a cohesive unit. At the request of their coach, they competed in the Texas Relays that weekend. When they returned to El Paso they saw Harry Edwards very briefly as he was leaving, but his influence on their actions was not nearly as great as UTEP authorities would like to believe. As soon as they got back to the campus they held a secret meeting.