Black History Month: How Harry Edwards Fueled Generations of Athlete Activism

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This February, Sports Illustrated is celebrating Black History Month by spotlighting a different iconic athlete or group of athletes every day. Today, SI looks back on the legacy of Harry Edwards. 

Harry Edwards helped encourage multiple generations of athlete activism.

The sociologist and professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley was the man behind John Carlos and Tommie Smith's famous protest during the 1968 Summer Olympics. He also served as an adviser to Colin Kaepernick before and after the quarterback started to kneel during the playing of the national anthem to protest racial injustice.

Edwards—who set records as a discus thrower at San Jose State—helped usher in an era where athlete protest is commonplace. Even before Kaepernick took a knee to protest racial injustice, NBA players wore "I Can't Breathe" shirts to demonstrate against police brutality. Athletes publicly and aggressively advocate for subjugated communities at award shows and in routine interviews. Athletes across the country routinely reject visits to the White House.

As the leader of the Olympic Project for Human Rights in the 1960s, Edwards led a movement against racial segregation around the world, especially focusing on the United States (Jim Crow) and South Africa (apartheid). Most members of the OPHR were African-American athletes, advocates or community leaders. 

The group's original plan for the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City was to boycott them—unless four conditions were met. 

1.) That South Africa and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) be indefinitely banned from the Olympics. Both were under apartheid rule.

2.) The hiring of a more representative number of African-American coaches across the ranks and across Olympic sports. 

3.) The restoration of Muhammad Ali's world heavyweight title, which was stripped after he refused to join the U.S. Army in protest of the Vietnam War. 

4.) That Avery Brundage resign as president of the IOC. Brundage's racism and anti-Semitism were well-documented. 

Ultimately, Edwards, Carlos, Smith and other organizers formulated another plan: To protest at the games themselves, during a time when the most eyeballs were on them. 

So Carlos, Smith and other athletes wore OPHR lapels, black socks and no shoes when they weren't competing to symbolize African-American oppression. And most famously, Smith and Carlos, after winning gold and bronze respectively in the 200m dash, raised their fists in a black-power symbol during the playing of the national anthem at their award's ceremony. 

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Later, Edwards served as an adviser to the 49ers and Golden State Warriors. Before Kaepernick chose to take a knee to protest racial inequality and police brutality, Edwards served as a confidant. 

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote about Edwards for Sports Illustrated in 1969:

Let me say right here that Harry Edwards is a very intelligent and courageous man, and I am proud to know him. He stood up for black athletes long before anybody else, and in the face of all kinds of pressure. His two dogs were cut up and thrown on his front lawn, and that didn't even slow Professor Edwards down. He has guts and he is one of the great men. 

From the SI Vault:

"A Year Of Turmoil And Decision," by Lew Alcindor (Nov. 10, 1969)
"Fists of Fury," by Tim Layden (Oct. 8, 2018)