"You can no longer count," boomed Edwards, "on the successors of Jesse Owens to join in a fun-and-games fete propagandized as the epitome of equal rights so long as we are refused those rights in white society."
Thus began the Olympic Project for Human Rights. Edwards's mention of Owens signaled a historic shift. The famed sprinter and jumper, whose four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin had made a mockery of Hitler's Aryan-supremacy theories, embodied the tradition in which a black athlete was understood to be a "credit to his race."
Owens was always polite, always humble. He had never complained of having been reduced to racing against horses for a few dollars after the Olympics. He had never spoken ill of the hotels that turned him away, the restaurants that refused him service or the society that let this happen. Owens seemed to glory in overcoming obstacles. He preached that if a man worked hard enough, if he endured racial taunts the way Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis had, he would succeed, he would win the white man's respect and things would change.
Indeed, when news of an Olympic boycott reached the USOC, it would choose Owens to talk some sense into these angry new firebrands.
It wouldn't work. The great change was too far along. The new black athlete intended to stand as an equal with whites and point out the ills that needed curing.
To many Americans, this was simply insufferable. Track and Field News in December 1967 printed a sampling of letters that Smith and Evans had received. One from San Francisco read, "Smith: Thanks for pulling out.... quit being interested in watching a bunch of animals like Negroes go through their paces. Please see what you can do about withdrawing Negroes from... boxing, baseball and football."
"How much," railed a letter from Fullerton, Calif., "are the Communists paying you to make damn fools out of your fellow Americans?"
"Why in hell," asked another, "don't you and all the jigaboo so-called athletes...try the Congo? Now, there is a leading country—cook pots and dung piles everywhere, but that is black culture...."
The highest Olympic authority sounded uncomfortably like an aggrieved redneck. "If these boys are serious," said Brundage, "they're making a very bad mistake. If they're not serious and are using the Olympic Games for publicity purposes, we don't like it."
Owens sided with the established order, saying, "I deplore the use of the Olympic Games for political aggrandizement."