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Kenny Moore
August 05, 1991
In '68, Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists for racial justice
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August 05, 1991

A Courageous Stand

In '68, Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists for racial justice

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Hoarse, abrasive, hugely talented, a fountain of jive, Carlos was a master of the gunfighter braggadocio of sprinters. "I'll save you niggers a piece of the tape," he would croak to the competition when settling into the blocks. He made it a rule to ignore rules, giving the impression that his manhood was somehow sullied by the need to train.

"Tommie Smith walked the path of righteousness," Huey says. "He liked to feel he'd earned what he won. Carlos liked to feel he'd gotten away with something."

For some time, Smith and his roommate, S.T. Saffold, had known and been impressed by Edwards. "He was six-eight and 260, and that was the least of why he was imposing," says Smith. "He was magnetic. It was extraordinary to have an example like Harry: black, an A student, an athlete and a personality of force."

Edwards taught a class called Racial Minorities, which grew in attendance from 60 to 600 students in the 1967-68 school year. "A lot of militancy was rising in the black community," says Evans. "We stopped referring to ourselves as colored or Negro. You were black or you were not black. An Afro haircut was a statement of black nationalism. Nineteen sixty-seven was the first year I was proud of my skin being black."

"Harry challenged you," says Smith. "He used whatever he could to stop you in your tracks and get you to listen—black jargon, profanity, jokes, threats or a Ph.D. soliloquy on history. [Louis] Farrakhan has nothing on Harry for eloquence."

In September 1967, Edwards urged the black students on the San Jose State campus, most of whom were male athletes, to exert the only leverage they had. "If they won't rent to us," he rumbled, "why should we run or play for them?"

A group of black students led by Edwards demanded that the university rule that housing and social and political organizations that were not open to all students not be open to any. If such action weren't taken, Edwards said, he and the students would do whatever necessary to disrupt the first football game of the season.

Fearing an outbreak of violence, San Jose State president Robert Clark canceled the game, infuriating Ronald Reagan, then California's governor, who publicly reprimanded Clark for allegedly allowing himself to be coerced by Edwards. Clark held talks with the protesters, and their demands were addressed.

An instrument had been created.

Edwards asked Smith, Evans and other black athletes, including UCLA basketball star Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), to a meeting to be held in late November in Los Angeles. There they would test support for an Olympic boycott by black athletes to protest racial injustice in America.

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