The Agitator: Harry Edwards on the Revolt of Today’s Black Athlete
In the 1960s, Edwards helped lead a generation of black athletes who wanted to take action for the cause of racial equality. His knowledge, perspective, and experience are still in high demand.
Photo by Lauren Gerson/LBJ Presidential Library
This story was originally published on Dat Winning.
For a retired professor, Harry Edwards is hard to reach. He has places to be: lectures out east, quick stops in the Midwest to help the San Francisco 49ers prepare for the NFL draft, and consulting assignments for the NCAA. Not to mention his 1969 book, Revolt of the Black Athlete, is back in print.
"I should be available Sunday around noon," he writes me in March. "We should have at least 20 minutes." He'd given me 25 minutes in February. We miss each other again.
We would all be blessed to have such vigor at 73. But Edwards isn't burning energy to stay in shape. His knowledge, perspective, and experience are in high demand. In the 1960s, Edwards helped lead a generation of black athletes who wanted to take action for the cause of racial equality. He helped a tide of black athlete activism wash through colleges around the U.S.–and into the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, where two U.S. sprinters, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, raised their gloved fists in protest as America watched aghast.
It had been some time since we had seen that kind of athlete activism. But the Black Lives Matter movement, galvanized by the police shooting of Mike Brown in August 2014, has brought new acts of sociopoltical dissidence to sports. In 2014, Derrick Rose wore an "I can't breathe" t-shirt in warm-ups, an act of solidarity toward a public outraged by the police killing of Eric Garner in New York. It inspired other NBA stars to follow. The same year, five St. Louis Rams ran onto the field with their hands up, in homage to Brown. And last November, the University of Missouri football team refused to play until the school's president, Tim Wolfe, addressed racism on campus and resigned, which he did.
"Textbook," Edwards called it.
He may have lived long enough to see history repeat itself. Even if this generation uses Twitter more than his did.
"Nobody does things the way that they did it in the past," Edwards told me. "Muhammad Ali was not Joe Louis. Every generation creates its own path, creates its own methods to get its message across. This generation won't be any different."
Edwards was born November 22, 1942, in East St. Louis, Illinois. Brown v. Board of Education came down in 1954, and Edwards was part of the first integrated class at his local high school.
It was a culture clash: Kids as foreign to each other as Martians, forced into contact. But Edwards was a born athlete, 6-5 and over 200 pounds at just 13 years old, with the toughness of a kid who had grown up living on beans and paste, and pulling his own rotten teeth out by hand.
His high school did the only thing it could think of: It put him on the field.
"They never laid a glove on me in the classroom," he said in a 2005 oral history1. "I left East St. Louis Senior High School largely unscathed by education. I simply played sports. Football in the fall, basketball in the winter, and track and field in the spring."
Edwards' father, seeing his son's physical gifts, thought sports were his ticket out. He helped his son get to Fresno City College in California. Edwards, now full-grown at 6-8, 250, signed onto the track and field team. In May 1960, he broke the national record in discus.
Sports had gotten Edwards out of East St. Louis and brought him renown. But Edwards had no illusions about how others saw him. Once, he recalls, a white coach, thinking he was out of earshot, called him "a terrific animal."
Edwards' talents landed him an athletic scholarship to San Jose State. He set the school's discus record–just under 180 feet–and at one point qualified for the Olympic trials. He captained the basketball team.
But Edwards' arrival in California had made him more than just an athlete. He had become obsessed with reading. He soaked up books–Baldwin, Ellison, DuBois, Angelou, Hansberry–and music. His teammates preferred jock life.
"They thought I was bizarre. I mean they really thought this. Because they were going to a party, or they were going back to the dorm and relax and rest, and whatever," he said.2 "But I would leave a basketball game and go to the library. Leave the library and go home. I'd be up half the night listening to music, or reading books that I really wanted to read. I loved that part of it."
Edwards graduated San Jose State with a B.A. in 1964, with high honors. He was 6-8, 265, and "willing to break some bones" on the field.
He had options with the Minnesota Vikings, the San Diego Chargers, the Los Angeles Lakers, and Cornell University. He picked graduate school at Cornell.
Harry Edwards returned to San Jose in 1966. He had a master's degree from Cornell, a Ph.D in the works, and a part-time teaching job at San Jose State. What he didn't have was an apartment.
For a black man in San Jose in the 1960s, finding an apartment was hell. If you applied for one, it would puff out of existence. You could get a dorm room only if you could find a black roommate, or a white person who was willing to let you stay with him. Forget about going Greek.
Black athletes at San Jose State–who were virtually all of its black population–lived like couch surfers. They slept in motels, dorm lobbies, even the shed on the football field. They crowded into group homes, their legs dangling out of bathtubs. On the field, they were the school's marquee attractions. Off it, they were homeless.
Nothing had changed. Nobody had done anything. So it was time for us to do something. – Ken Noel
Edwards ended up in a $75-per-month garage with a bare cement floor. But Edwards was no longer a man who could tolerate his condition. While in Ithaca, he had ridden the weekend bus to New York City to hear Malcolm X speak. He had read and absorbed the methods, values, and ideas of the Black Power movement.
In 1967, he struck up a conversation with grad student Ken Noel, another black, former track star. "After a little while of talking, about what we were doing and what was going on in the world and around us, we kind of came to the conclusion that things on campus hadn't changed very much since we got there around 1960," Noel told me. "There was a bunch of new students coming in and they were going to face the same things that we faced years before. Nothing had changed. Nobody had done anything. So it was time for us to do something."
Noel and Edwards brought a list of civil-rights grievances to college administrators. They were blown off, and sometimes laughed off. Then they met with the college's president, Robert D. Clark, a wiry Nebraskan with glasses and a trim mustache. He was appalled by what Noel and Edwards were sharing, and crystal-clear about their resolve.
Clark was no rube. He had seen and read about student protests against the Vietnam war–including what the students were themselves reading–and sympathized with their cause. He had even visited a protest to speak to seething protesters through a bullhorn. He favored civil rights. His passion was the thrust-and-parry of reasoned debate.
But he was stunned at the breadth, toxicity, and illegality of what Noel and Edwards were showing him. White and black athletes were recruited differently: "Coaches and the fraternities entertain the white boys, throw parties for them with dates," Clark's meeting notes say. "But when the blacks come in they show them about the campus then give one of the negro professors (Edwards among them) $20 and say, here, take him to dinner." 3
"It must have been a very startling experience for him to see that Harry Edwards was saying all these things were happening on his campus, and he wasn't doing anything about it," said Suzanne Clark, a professor emerita at the University of Oregon and Robert Clark's daughter. She is co-writing his biography.
Noel and Edwards wanted to add urgency to the matter. They said they would hold a demonstration on the first day of classes. Clark was invited.
Last October, black student activists at the University of Missouri demanded the resignation of its president, Tim Wolfe, for what they said was his failure to address acts of racism on campus.
Did they have cause? You be the judge. At one frat party, young women had been called "n*gger bitches." Someone smeared a shit swastika on a bathroom wall. Students in a pickup truck had flung racist slurs at the student body president, who got on Facebook and put the school on blast.
If Wolfe's charge as president was to protect everyone on campus, these black students considered him derelict of duty. They held protests. A dozen students blocked Wolfe's convertible on the way to homecoming. They demanded his resignation. One of their leaders, Jonathan Butler, began a hunger strike. He wouldn't eat until Wolfe stepped down.
"Being in Ferguson and protesting with those people, I saw how dire the need is to be serious about this. We can't patty-cake around and be like, 'Oh, I'm gonna fight for blacks' lives,' put your fist up," Butler said in Two Fists Up, Spike Lee's recent documentary on Mizzou. "You have to be willing to have the higher level of sacrifice if you truly want change."
On the sixth day of the hunger strike, the football team–which is 69% black–said it refused to play until Wolfe stepped down. Their coach is the one who tweeted it:
Wolfe stepped down two days later. R. Bowen Loftin, the school's chancellor, did the same. Edwards noticed.
"Predominantly White collegiate institutions continue to be as unprepared for Black student enrollment as they were in the 1960's and, therefore, are all but 'institutionally blind and deaf' or simply in denial relative to the legitimacy of Black student concerns and interests," he wrote in a December tract.
He went on: "And it is these circumstances that provide the optimal environment for Black student-Black athlete activist collaboration."
The "Rally on Racism at San Jose State" took place at noon on September 18, 1967. Hundreds of people, Clark included, heard Edwards present nine demands on behalf of United Black Students for Action.
Among them, the UBSA demanded a public forum to address racial discrimination on campus. It demanded sanction and punishments for students or landlords who insisted on discrimination in housing. It demanded that the Athletics Department immediately form a plan to treat all athletes, and prospects, equally without regard to race.
If these demands were not met, Edwards said, he and others were prepared to halt SJSU's football season opener at Spartan Stadium, "by any means necessary."
Noel and Edwards had recognized their leverage. There were 72 African-Americans at the college. Next to a student body of 24,000, they were a rounding error. But 60 of those African-Americans were athletes, critical pieces on the track, football, and basketball teams that were themselves critical to the college. Black athletes did have power in numbers. Not by being many, but by being few.
The game was September 23, less than a week away. An Oakland group called the Soul Brothers contacted Edwards and said it was willing to take drastic measures to prevent the game. The Hells Angels, on the other hand, volunteered to ensure the game was played.
Some of San Jose State's football players intended to join the boycott. Others were just nervous about playing in a tinderbox. One spark of incitement, they thought, and Spartan Stadium could turn into a full-on racial brawl.
Clark was in crisis mode. He dashed between calls from the opponent (the University of Texas at El Paso), the police, Sacramento, San Jose, and Harry Edwards, who knew most about the shifting currents of the coming protest. California Governor Ronald Reagan asked Clark if he wanted to surround Spartan Stadium with troops. Clark declined.
Edwards and the protesters had brought a cauldron of chaos to boil, and they welcomed it. "When you have outside groups coming in, not only pro-black groups but anti-black groups, then it becomes unpredictable," Noel said.
Their strategy wasn't violence, though they were ready for that. It was brinkmanship.
"Harry would always remind you the Black Panthers were out there. And it was him or them," said J. Benton White, a civil-rights activist who was then a minister at San Jose State. "And we'd be better off dealing with him, than we would dealing with them."
With three days to go, Clark got a tip from Edwards. There was a rumor that someone intended to burn the stadium down. Clark canceled the game. "We feel that we do not have the right to take chances with people's lives," he wrote in a statement.
Governor Reagan took a different view. "I feel it was yielding, it was appeasement," he said. He added that Edwards was "unfit to teach."
Edwards called him "a petrified pig, unfit to govern."
Clark convened a four-day forum. The discussions touched on an array of topics, including the treatment of black student-athletes, discrimination in housing and Greek life, and the admission of minority students. He put out a stern memo.
Frats and sororities had a month to present plans to end discrimination within their doors. Landlords were notified that old practices had to go. The sports department had to make reforms. The college would recruit more black faculty and students.
Edwards would wage more campaigns in the coming year. They enraged some Americans, and they let President Clark know.
"Surely there must be some way to get rid of him!", one letter begged. "Maybe you could talk him into returning to Africa — he could be king of the Gold Coast!"
"Look at the beard, the beads, the witchcraft charm, the goofball glasses, and the ridiculous cap," said another. "How many good innocent apples will this racist bad apple poison in the San Jose barrel."
"This is the first letter of this type I have ever written, so you know how some people — and I'm not a racist, either, think."
Clark received even more hate mail after he put out a statement supporting Smith and Carlos.
"Our own minority peoples should be able to be heard here at home, rather than needing an international setting to gain attention for their cause," he wrote.
He got an anonymous letter six days later.
"After you welcome your hero's home (sic), why don't you get down and kiss their asses also," it said. "You un-American pig."
"We had learned the use of power–the power to be gained from exploiting the white man's economic and almost religious involvement in athletics," Edwards wrote in The Revolt of the Black Athlete.
Over the coming year, Edwards' office at San Jose State became mission control for a national campaign. He helped organize black athletes at other college campuses–always under the watchful eye of police. He arranged the boycott of a track meet held by a whites-only club in New York City. So many athletes withdrew, both black and white, that when the meet went through anyway, the times were meaningless.
Edwards also played a pivotal role in trying to set up a black boycott of the 1968 Olympics. The movement fell apart, but many of the black athletes decided they would protest in their own way. Two of them–SJSU "Speed City" track and field alums Tommie Smith and John Carlos–medaled in the 200-meter sprint. On the stand during the medal ceremony, as the Star-Spangled Banner played, they raised their fists in a Black Power salute.
You could say Smith and Carlos' act went viral, by the standards of the day. It has become the iconic image of athlete activism. It's in our high school social studies books.
But technology has changed; one no longer needs the Olympic stage to be seen and heard. Consider Ariyana Smith, a former D-3 basketball player who in 2014 had a game at a college near Ferguson. A video shows Smith walking, hands up, to the baseline as the national anthem plays. She kneels beneath the flag, then lies down for four-and-a-half minutes, to commemorate the four-and-a-half hours Mike Brown's corpse laid in the street.
It was the kind of act that, in the past, might never have escaped the college papers. Today, it lives forever on YouTube.
Today's activists are sometimes dismissed as "hashtag activists," people who are willing to lend a click of support but never risk their skins. Not Harry Edwards. He recognizes social media as "the most powerful organizational tool in history."
When he was an organizer, he said, it took 60 to 70 phone calls just to get 20 callbacks. Now, a social media post can get 1 million looks. It's capable of outing Donald Sterling's racist rants, or pulling together protests in the Arab world or in Ferguson.
"They didn't meet at a national conference and come up with that," he said. "That was a hashtag that took off."
Ariyana Smith was suspended and quickly reinstated. She then quit the team.
The revolt of the black athlete in America as a phase of the overall black liberation movement is as legitimate as the sit-ins, the freedom rides, or any other manifestation of Afro-American efforts to gain freedom. – Harry Edwards
The shutdown at Spartan Stadium showed Edwards he had touched on a sensitive subject. That was the point. He wanted to shake to pieces the idea that sport was America's Platonic ideal, the one place race, religion, or creed didn't matter so long as you brought it on the field. He wanted to show that sport was a reflection, not a correction, of society's injustices.
"The revolt of the black athlete in America as a phase of the overall black liberation movement is as legitimate as the sit-ins, the freedom rides, or any other manifestation of Afro-American efforts to gain freedom," he wrote in The Revolt of the Black Athlete.
"The goals of the revolt likewise are the same as those of any other legitimate phase of the movement–equality, justice, the regaining of black dignity lost during three hundred years of abject slavery, and the attainment of the basic human and civil rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution and the concept of American democracy."
Around New Year's Eve last year, the hashtag #NoJusticeNoLeBronstarted trending on Twitter. A few days prior, a Cleveland jury had decided against indicting the policeman who killed Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old African-American boy playing with a pellet gun outside a rec center. The officer shot him within seconds of pulling up.
The hashtaggers asked LeBron James to sit out in protest.
James, of course, is a native Ohioan. When he moved back to Cleveland in 2014, he told Sports Illustrated, "I feel my calling here goes above basketball." And he had spoken out on police-involved shootings before.
Martin Luther King Day came and went. LeBron played. Tariq Touré, a Baltimore writer who helped push the Twitter campaign, said he respected LeBron's decision. But he still thinks he was on the right track.
"Reasonable, plausible, pragmatic, that whole cadre of language, it really isn't conducive to the black condition here," he said. "If we're not considering every measure of resistance, if we're saying certain things are edgy...things should be edgy."
If indeed we are seeing a new era of athlete activism, that's where it is: trying to figure out what works and what doesn't, what's too edgy and what's not edgy enough. And what is the true role of social media? Is there enlightenment to be found in the toxic pit of internet conversation?
Do likes, retweets, online petitions, and viral videos about athletes really budge laws or policies? Or do they diffuse the movement's energy, failing to focus the attention of mainstream society in the way that boycotts, sit-ins, and marches once did?
"Do you really think that an NBA athlete or an NFL athlete, or any celebrities in that kind of a category...can move or put anything into action by merely wearing a t-shirt?", Mo Ivory, a lawyer and radio host, put it in a 2014 podcast.
"I myself do not think that it does much. I think it's symbolic for the movement, I think it says that I'm watching the news, and I'm listening to what's happening and I'm compassionate for the family. But I don't really know that it moves anything politically. What I do know that moves things politically is money."
But this analysis, especially from the older generation, might miss a crucial truth about the 21st century. In 2016, even the most trivial speech is shared on the internet. If something meaningful is shared, well, that's tantamount to action. The Miami Heat didn't tweet themselves in hoodies because they needed a photo.
"They get it. The athletes get it," Harry Edwards told me. "It's not the money issue that shakes the establishment up. Tommie Smith and John Carlos didn't cost the sports establishment any money. Ali didn't cost the sports establishment any money."
"What they did do was to cause a shift in terms of who's in control and what the limits of that control were. That is what the establishment is always afraid of. They print money every day."
In November 2013, the District Attorney of Santa Clara County filed charges against three San Jose State students. The students, who were white, stood accused of hazing a black suite-mate, Donald Williams, Jr., during the fall semester. The D.A. said their actions included locking Williams in his room, nicknaming him "three-fifths" and "fraction," and putting up a Confederate flag in the common room. Once, they managed to close a bike lock–the "bike lock of shame," as they called it–around his neck. The authorities didn't find out until Williams' parents visited and reported it.
The jury was asked to decide the nature of the crime. Was it, as the prosecution argued, a hate crime? Or were these actions part of a prank war spun out of control, as the defense claimed?
In February, the jury concluded that the students were guilty of misdemeanor battery, but not of committing a hate crime. Two of them had to choose between 30 days of jail or weekend work. The third received one day in jail. All three have been expelled.
The events have shaken a San Jose State campus that had hoped it was further along by now, that it had done more to honor the legacy of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, whose statue stands near Robert D. Clark Hall.
SJSU commissioned a 400-page independent report to see if it could have known sooner, done something earlier. But some black students are livid with what they see as the jury's light punishment for the former students. "This is the beginning of a new movement from the black community on campus," one student told the San Jose Mercury News.
Sometimes, to find your moral center again, it helps to look to the past. In March, San Jose State announced that this year's commencement speaker will be Harry Edwards. His address will take place on May 28, at 9:30 a.m. The venue is Spartan Stadium.
1. Harry Edwards, "Harry Edwards: An Oral History" conducted by Nadine Wilmot in 2005, Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 2010
3. From a manuscript of Suzanne Clark's and David Frank's forthcoming book
4. Images used with permission of San Jose State University Library Special Collections and Archives. From the San José State University Office of the President, Robert D. Clark Records, MSS-2009-08-03, San José State University Library Special Collections & Archives.
5. Letters to President Robert D. Clark used with permission of San Jose State University Library Special Collections and Archives. From the San José State University Office of the President, Robert D. Clark Records, MSS-2009-08-03, San José State University Library Special Collections & Archives.