At 2 o'clock on Thanksgiving Day afternoon about 200 people attending a meeting of the Western Regional Black Youth Conference gathered in a Sunday School room on the second floor of the Second Baptist Church in Los Angeles for a workshop that had been assembled for the express purpose of deciding whether or not to call for a boycott of the 1968 Olympic Games by U.S. Negro athletes. Many of those at the workshop wore colorful African shirts, and most wore their hair in the "natural" style. Some wore Malcolm X and Ron Karenga sweat shirts, and a variety of slogan buttons were in evidence. Reportedly, there were 50 college athletes present, but only five—Sprinters Tommie Smith and Lee Evans, Basketball Star Lew Alcindor, High Jumper Otis Burrell and Hurdler Ron Copeland—were of world class. A few ex-Olympians also were in attendance. The workshop was an orderly one, although outside the church a bloody fracas erupted between militant Black Power followers of Karenga and a group of self-styled Communists which referred to the Negroes at the meeting as "bourgeois." Those inside were unaware of the disturbance until it was over.
Harry Edwards, a 24-year-old part-time instructor of sociology at San Jose State, was chairman of the workshop. Edwards is a compelling figure and a celebrity on the San Jose campus. He is 6'8", wears horn-rimmed glasses and a goatee, and was a star athlete at San Jose—a center on the basketball team and holder of the San Jose record for the discus throw—before going on to Cornell for his advanced degrees (he has his master's in sociology and will receive his Ph.D. in a few months). In September he gained national attention when he led a campus protest against alleged discrimination in housing for Negro students. His threat to take the protest into the stadium led to the cancellation of a San Jose football game.
On the Tuesday before the boycott meeting, students at San Jose were in the second day of a protest against the presence on the campus of Dow Chemical Company recruiters. As the pickets paraded, some white faculty members came over and spoke to Edwards about the demonstration, nodding as they listened to his comments. A few white students stopped and said, "tell us what to do, Harry." He smiled and replied, "Act intelligent."
After the demonstration he discussed the impending workshop, which he had played a big part in organizing. He said, "For years we have participated in the Olympic Games, carrying the U.S. on our backs with our victories, and race relations are worse now than ever. Now they are even shooting people in the streets. We're not trying to lose the Olympics for the Americans. What happens to them is immaterial. If they finish first, that's beautiful. If they finish 14th, that's beautiful, too. But it's time for the black people to stand up as men and women and refuse to be utilized as performing animals for a little extra dog food. You see, this may be our last opportunity to settle this mess short of violence."
December 4, 1967
Edwards teaches a class on minority group relations, and that night his subject was the Jew in American society. After his preliminary lecture he led the class in a spirited discussion. One of his students was Lee Evans, who would be the fastest quarter-miler in the world if Tommie Smith wasn't. Evans sat in the back of the room taking notes. Two or three times he closed his notebook and looked at the numerals he had inked in large letters on the cover: 44.3. That is world record time and Evans' goal in the 440. Whenever he looked at it, he could not have helped thinking ahead to the meeting on Thanksgiving Day.
After the class, Evans said, "I first thought about boycotting track meets last year when I found out they had invited Paul Nash from South Africa to compete in the Compton Relays. We brought him here, but I can't even go into his country. I've dreamed about participating in the Olympics ever since I learned to run. But this does not mean participation at any price, and my own manhood is not one of the prices I am willing to pay."
Evans went over to Smith's apartment to talk about the trip to Los Angeles. Like college kids, they joked and fooled around for a few minutes, but then both became serious. Smith said, "I remember that day in Tokyo last summer, after the World University Games, when a Japanese newspaperman asked me if there was a possibility Negro athletes might boycott the 1968 Olympics. All I told him that day was, 'yes, there is a possibility,' and the next thing I know the newspapers say I'm leading a boycott movement.
"I can't tell another black athlete that it is his duty to forget a goal he has sought for himself. In fact, I hope a boycott won't be needed to bring about the necessary changes in our country. But if a boycott is deemed appropriate, then I believe most black athletes will act in unison."
In Los Angeles on Thanksgiving Day Harry Edwards ran the workshop in much the same way he conducts his classes at San Jose. He spoke first and, in effect, gave a lecture for about 30 minutes. Then he turned the session into a discussion group, with most of the speakers sounding off as they stood by their seats. Edwards was strongly pro-boycott ("We want to get this problem into the world court," he had said before the meeting. "We want to show the world that the United States is just as racist as South Africa ever hoped to be"), but he ran the meeting smoothly, and both pro-and anti-boycott opinions were heard. The arguments against the boycott, or for some compromise course, were raised by the older people present, those in their late 20s and early 30s. The younger ones, the majority, were strongly for it.
At 4:37, more than 2½ hours after the meeting had begun, Edwards asked, "Well, what do you want to do?" Immediately, shouts of "Boycott! Boycott!" rose from all parts of the room, and the decision was made by acclamation. The Olympic boycott was tied in with two others—a refusal to take part in any event in which there were participants from South Africa and Rhodesia, and a boycott of events connected with the New York Athletic Club, which Edwards declared restricted its membership to white Christians.
There were few voiced objections. Tommie Smith had gone on record as saying that if the majority voted to boycott, he would, too, and that seemed to be the spirit that prevailed. Lew Alcindor voted for it, although the next day at a press conference he seemed uncertain of his position. He said then that he had yet to decide what he would do but added, "If you live in a racist society, you have to react—and this is my way of reacting. We don't catch hell because we are Christians. We catch hell because we are black."
Yet the arguments and the vote did not appear strong enough or loud enough in the days following the meeting to gain the unanimous support that Smith, for one, had hoped for. Ralph Boston, Olympic champion and world record holder in the broad jump, said, "What boycott? I've put too much time and effort into track and field to give it up. If I felt there was sufficient reason I would boycott, but I don't even know what the reason is. At least Negroes have this much: we can compete in amateur sports and we can represent ourselves and then the country."
Triple Jumper Art Walker, who is America's best in that event, said, "I believe every person has to do what his conscience tells him to do. Mine tells me to go to the Olympics."
Former Olympians like Bob Hayes, Rafer Johnson and Jesse Owens spoke out against the decision, too, though white hurdler Richmond Flowers of Tennessee said, "It's their right. As long as they want to do it, I guess they can."
When Evans left Smith's apartment in San Jose two nights before the meeting, optimism was in their eyes. In Los Angeles, as the workshop ended, they stood together looking at the people milling around. Only moments before, the boycott had been roaringly approved, but now that it had been decided the faces of these two superb athletes, the ones who had most to sacrifice personally, seemed drawn and tired. Their eyes were shallow, devoid of any sign of joy or elation. Smith looked wearily around the hall and said softly to Evans, "All I hope is that this does some good, that it doesn't create any chaos."