"Given that Dr. King was executed, so to speak, in Tennessee, some of us were uncomfortable," recalls James. "The team met. The agreement was that we had to be unanimous to not go. We weren't. So we went."
In Knoxville, James learned that when the news of King's death had been announced over the TV in the Tennessee student center, it had caused a standing ovation. Carrying that knowledge in the pit of his stomach, James jogged across the campus to the track meet. "A VW passed and I heard, 'Run, nigger, run!' I immediately started to walk. And I began to internalize things."
James went onto the track and won the 440 in 45.2. "Do you know what a 45.2 means, Burner?" yelled miler and Villanova team captain David Patrick, shaking him. "Third-fastest ever! It means Olympics, Burner!"
Three weeks later, James completed a running-start relay 440 at the Penn Relays in 43.9, the fastest ever.
Every black athlete of that generation had experiences like Coleman's and James's. They transformed fear, loss and rage into performance. "It was in us," says Smith, "the will to prove our worth."
But was a boycott the best way? Or should they stay with the way that defined them and run for their cause?
On the night of June 5, the recurrent, disorienting violence of 1968 erupted in Los Angeles. After winning the California presidential primary, Senator Robert F. Kennedy was slain by Sirhan Sirhan in a kitchen passageway of the Ambassador Hotel. Seizing the pistol from the assailant's grasp that night was Kennedy's aide Rafer Johnson, the 1960 Olympic decathlon champion. As it had when King was shot, hope drained away amid the screams. Every fear, it seemed in that year of agony, was justified.
Because Mexico City's 7,350-foot altitude needed getting used to, the U.S. conducted preliminary Olympic track and field trials in late June in Los Angeles and invited the athletes who qualified to a summerlong high-altitude training camp above South Lake Tahoe, Calif. The final trials would be held there, at Echo Summit, in September.
At the L.A. trials, the black male athletes met. Of 26 favored to make the team, 13 said they would boycott. But top 100-meter men Jim Hines and Charlie Greene were adamant that they would compete. "It comes down to whether you're an American or not," said Greene, who would go on to a 20-year career in the Army. "I am American, and I'm going to run."
To hold unity, the boycott was abandoned. Blacks would take part in the Games, do their damnedest to win, and then, if one's conscience demanded it, make a gesture on the victory stand. "Things were still hypothetical, since the team wasn't set," says Evans. "I thought we'd wear black armbands or something."