Dr. Harry Edwards first stepped onto San Jose State College’s campus in 1966, a 6’5”, 245 lb, 16-year-old track and basketball star who grew up in East St. Louis. He was excited to join not only a student body of free thinkers in the school’s sociology program, but also the university’s “Speed City” roster, whose runners produced 43 world records and 49 American records between 1958 and 1979.
After a semester at Fresno City College, his future looked bright with a track and field scholarship to the California State University system’s oldest campus in hand, where he says he “anticipated no problems of a racial sort in the sports program,” which had “become known as a haven for world-class Black sprinters.”
But that sunny California dreaming quickly dissolved; after learning there were fewer than 60 full-time Black students at SJSU—none of whom could name a Black athlete who had graduated, Edwards says—he quickly realized that the value those around him in San Jose saw in Black athletes started and ended on the field, court and track.
“There was a long established joke circulating,” Edwards wrote in his memoir The Struggle That Must Be, where he detailed years of perseverance through discrimination. “‘When campus police find a Negro on campus after dark, they throw him a football. If he fumbles it, they throw him a basketball. If he fumbles that, they throw him into their squad car—unless he can outrun them, in which they just assume that he is one of [track coach] Bud Winters’ boys.’ By the end of my first semester at San Jose State, all illusions of California as a super liberal interracial promised land had evaporated.”
He was forced to live with a coach while the SJSU administration struggled to find white students open to being roommates. Renting was out of the question, as nearby landlords feared Black tenants would force white tenants away. And the school shut down access to the dorms during Thanksgiving, forcing Edwards to spend November nights sleeping on a San Jose donut shop stoop.
These dismal stories are more than personal journal entries; from being one of the first Black students integrated into his Missouri high school to facing structural racism daily at SJSU, Edwards’ experiences facing discrimination in the South Bay became seeds that blossomed into his role as lead organizer of one of the most iconic political demonstrations in sports history: San Jose State sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ podium protest at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City.
Their silent act of resistance—heads down, black power fists up in the air—during the “Star-Spangled Banner” after winning a world-record gold and bronze in the men’s 200-meter race was a stand against injustices, from the apartheid in South Africa and revocation of Muhammad Ali’s world heavyweight boxing title, to the history of white supremacy and misogyny in the Olympics.
“That whole period had a profound impact on me, in terms of what I was up against doing anything academic, political, and athletic,” Edwards told San Jose Inside, noting that social tensions and assassinations culminated in one of the most violent periods in U.S. history since the Civil War. “All of these areas, I can think about them independently, but they all intersected to bring me to the point that I ultimately came to.”
While a 22-foot sculpture has immortalized the infamous 1968 Olympic snapshot on SJSU’s campus since 2005, the context behind Edwards’ evolution into a political organizer who helped define the modern intersection of sports, race and society—while being told he was insane in the process—has been somewhat lost in San Jose’s collective civil rights history.
“People would have you believe that Carlos and Smith just stepped up one day and decided, ‘We’re gonna fight against discrimination, we’re gonna stand up for human rights.’ There was a whole movement behind that, beginning with Tommie Smith taking my class,” Edwards said, noting that America has a habit of reducing Black experiences into singular, isolated high points, from Martin Luther King Jr. giving his “I Have a Dream” speech to Rosa Parks refusing to move from a seat at the front of a segregated bus. “That eliminates a true understanding of the context out of which that movement emerged, and what it has to do with things that are going on this very day.”
In 2021, Edwards spends his days as a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of California Berkeley, a consultant with the National Football League, the NBA and the San Francisco 49ers, and a proud grandfather.
Half a century earlier, then-SJSU sociology instructor Edwards, along with George Washington Ware, Ken Noel, Jimmy Garrett, and Bob Hoover, helped rally dozens as United Black Students for Action against discrimination in SJSU’s housing, Greek organizations, athletics, and representation in student and staff on campus.
School administrators beat them to the punch, canceling a football game due to racial unrest—an unprecedented move, according to the New York Times–much to the ire of California Gov. Ronald Reagan.
After rejecting opportunities to be drafted by the NFL to pursue a PhD in sociology from Cornell University in New York City—where he kept the company of quintessential Black voices like Martin Luther King Jr., Floyd McKissick, Malcolm X, Angela Davis, Maya Angelou and James Baldwin in between his research and writing—he returned to SJSU as an instructor, further crystalizing the idea he helped establish: athletes could use their platform in sports to change the world.
Edwards took the momentum from his 1,104-page dissertation and ran with it, helping form the Olympic Project for Human Rights in 1968, which amplified the awareness of racial issues in sport and society by bringing together hundreds of Black athletes in workshops that year, connecting with notable activists like Martin Luther King Jr. to share their platform and desires.
OPHR crafted the playbook for tackling injustices through athletes’ collective leadership and action in the 1960s. Smith and Carlos’ 1968 protest in Mexico City took the message and movement against racism to the next level—from an idea formed on a bench on San Jose State’s campus, to making waves across international borders.
“The stadium became eerily quiet,” Carlos later recalled in his memoir, noting some of the 50,000 spectators went silent, booed or defiantly shouted the anthem. “They screamed it to the point where it seemed less a national anthem than a barbaric call to arms.”
The power of that moment has reemerged in headlines during the 2021 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan.
Smith and Carlos joined more than 150 athletes, educators and activists in signing a July letter urging the International Olympic Committee against punishing participants who demonstrate at the Tokyo Games. The IOC complied, relaxing its “Rule 50,” which prohibited “political, religious or racial propaganda,” but did not lift the ban on medals-stand demonstrations.
Reignited in the year since Minneapolis police killed George Floyd, women’s soccer players for Britain, Chile, Sweden and the United States knelt before their games, a gymnast from Costa Rica incorporated a Black Lives Matter protest into her floor routine and a U.S. shot-putter made the first podium demonstration by raising and crossing her arms into an “X” shape, to bring attention to intersectional issues of racial, gender and mental health injustice—the same intentions then-49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and Atlanta Dream’s Ariana Smith had following the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
All of these actions can be traced back to Smith and Carlos.
“San Jose State was ground zero for a movement that literally changed the perceptions of sport, the understanding of sport as a social institution, and a revolution that changed the disposition, and attitudes of athletes in terms of turning the athletic stages into political platforms,” Edwards says. “It’s nice to talk about all of the people who started a computer firm in their garage, and it’s nice to talk about the moment of creating the most iconic sports image of the 20th century, which is Smith and Carlos on the podium in Mexico City, but you’ve also got to talk about how that came about and why here.”
Following the hubbub of Mexico City, conditions didn’t get any better in San Jose.
Smith, Carlos and Edwards were welcomed back home with lost jobs, team suspensions, bad press, threatened lives, dead dogs and FBI surveillance for being dangerous to the state, anti-American and revolutionary.
“Our life was put on a stand to be vilified,” Smith said at an event at San Jose State two years ago, previously going so far as to say he thinks the protest ruined many parts of his life. “It is very sad that two young athletes had to do what they were doing to bring attention to racism.”
Their actions on a world stage may have sparked conversations and movements for decades to come, but not much of that progress has found its way to the South Bay, as prominent Black leaders still struggle to stay afloat—financially and socially.
An exodus of people of color and essential workers is happening as prices of living keep climbing, while opportunities to “make it” with a livable wage and access to affordable housing can’t keep up.
Metro areas such as San Francisco and Oakland saw sharp decreases of roughly 40% in Black residents between 1990 and 2019; San Jose lost 17.67% of its Black population over the same period. Additionally, of the 9,706 unhoused residents counted in 2019, 19% of those people were Black.
By 2019, Black people accounted for only 30,288 of San Jose’s population—about 3%.
“San Jose is not a place for Black people,” said Walter Wilson, CEO of the Silicon Valley Minority Business Consortium, in June, citing decades-long issues with racial segregation and profiling. “We’re not welcomed here, not really… and that is by design.”
Covid has accentuated the South Bay’s racial discrepancies; notably, African Americans accounted for 3% of Santa Clara County’s Covid deaths, according to public health data, while only representing 2.4% of its population.
San Jose Vice Mayor Chappie Jones took those concerns one step further, stating that if measures aren’t made to achieve some stability for Black residents, more and more may leave.
While Edwards has managed to successfully call the Bay Area home for more than five decades, many prominent Black San Jose residents aren’t able to say the same, packing up to seek better lives elsewhere.
After careers as athletes and educators, both Smith and Carlos eventually moved near Atlanta, Georgia. Smith eventually put his medal up for auction—both for the money and to give back to the community—but he’s now settled down south with a “good wife, a good mother-in-law and a lot of plants.”
In 2021, Rev. Jethroe Moore, the now-former president of the San Jose-Silicon Valley NAACP, also announced his move to Atlanta after decades spent in the South Bay, citing better opportunities for housing, jobs and education for his sons.
Especially as history repeats itself—similar protests are being organized around struggles in healthcare, voting rights, police brutality and discrimination—Edwards says nothing occurs in a vacuum.
Focusing on one event—the success of Speed City and the Mexico City games—to the exclusion of others—the physical, mental and economic toll organizers pushed through to get to that point—is an incomplete story. Without a full history, the role of San Jose State and the city of San Jose is lost.
“You’re creating a false narrative, as if these people simply materialized out of thin air and then faded away—like the morning mist before the rising sun,” Edwards says. “You can’t talk about the demonstration in Mexico City in isolation without seeing its impact as part of a whole history of athlete activism, going back to the turn of the 20th century, right up through the 21st century to what’s going on at the Olympic games today.”
How does Edwards expect San Jose—a city that hasn’t taken much tangible action to address its racial justice failings in the past year—to own up to its decades-long history of mistreatment?
He’s not holding his breath, saying the city can never fully know itself until that context comes to light.
“Until they own it all, they can’t tell that whole story,” Edwards says. “At the end of the day, I don’t expect them to embrace it, but the one thing that they cannot stop is the story being told.”
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