Larry Livers, a hurdler from Oakland, walked through the swirling picket line toward one of the side entrances to the new Madison Square Garden. A cop glanced at his ticket and allowed him to cross the police line; a few pickets glared at him in sullen silence. Livers was one of a handful of Negroes who planned to compete in the New York Athletic Club's annual indoor meet—an event that was boycotted by many athletes, both black and white, because of the club's discriminatory membership practices. Near the door, at the end of his 3,000-mile trip to the meet, Livers met Ken Noel.
Noel is a former half-miler, a student with a master's degree in sociology, and the chief assistant to Professor Harry Edwards of San Jose State, leader of the movement that may produce a black boycott of the Olympic Games. In his own way Noel can be almost as dominant in a group as the 6'8" Edwards. He looked at Livers and spoke slowly, with no anger or threat in his voice. "Brother, why would you want to go in there?"
Livers hesitated. "I wanted the plane trip to New York to see my family. And I wasn't really notified about the situation here."
Charlie Mays, quarter-miler for New York's Grand Street Boys, interrupted him. "Larry, you can't let the rest of us down by going in there." Noel nodded silently and waited. Finally Livers smiled, turned away from the door and went home.
February 26, 1968
There were a number of similar confrontations in the days leading up to the New York AC meet, and there will undoubtedly be many more in the months ahead. Black athletes will argue about when and if they should protest racial injustices; some of them will face difficult decisions about whether to compete in the Olympics. When Tommie Smith and Lee Evans joined Edwards in proposing an Olympic boycott last November, their chances of pulling it off appeared extremely remote. In the three months that followed, their cause seemed, if anything, to become even more hopeless. Last weekend this trend was dramatically reversed by separate events 4,000 miles apart. A widespread Olympic boycott may still be no more than a distant possibility, but it is certainly possible—and it appears far more likely now than it ever did before.
In itself, the boycott of the NYAC meet hardly ranks as a turning point in the history of racial strife. The meet was the club's 100th and it was scheduled as track's debut in the new Garden, but it was still just one sports event in one city; it could have been quietly canceled without being missed very much outside New York. The threats of violence preceding the meet, blown far out of proportion, were unfortunate but not very important in the long run. And the issue at stake—the crusty old Irish-dominated club's refusal to admit Negroes and all but a few Jews into its hallowed dining rooms and steambaths—was almost irrelevant.
What was important, however, was the test of whether Edwards, Noel and their followers could organize an effective and nonviolent protest. The NYAC, intransigent and obtuse, provided a perfect target for any protest; club spokesmen hardly deigned to comment as the boycott movement grew, and dismissed the undeniably lily-white makeup of the club as a right it had earned by many contributions to Negro youths through various track organizations. Edwards realized that the Olympics would present a much more complex and ambiguous target. Very few people can implicate the Olympics in any way with social injustice. Then, on the very day of the NYAC meet, Edwards picked up his New York Times and saw, in a banner headline above the story of his own boycott, the announcement that South Africa would be allowed back into the Olympics, ending a ban instituted in 1963 because of the nation's policies of racial discrimination.
"Where are all the people who say the Olympics should be above racism?" Edwards said. "Who can say the Olympics shouldn't be the target now? The committee has shown the black man just what it thinks of him. I think things will really begin to heat up."
Things heated up all over the world within hours after the International Olympic Committee, meeting in Grenoble, revealed the result of its secret-ballot vote by 71 members. The committee pointed out that South Africa had agreed to integrate its teams, a drastic measure for that country. But that concession could not convince black Africans—or many black Americans—that the Olympic Committee had not cast a ringing vote for apartheid. Ethiopia and Algeria quickly announced their withdrawals from the Mexico City Games, and a number of other countries soon followed. Legally, the Olympic Committee could lean on a tradition of noninvolvement in nations' internal affairs; as long as the South African team was integrated, the IOC could overlook the fact that it would be selected in segregated trials based on a national law that forbids meets involving both blacks and whites. But the committee could not avoid an emotional reaction that might jeopardize the Olympic Games.
Whether the impact of entire nations' withdrawing from the Games will seriously affect the attitudes of black American athletes remains to be seen. Most of them have been solidly against Smith and Evans and their plan to use the Olympics as a platform to dramatize their grievances at home. But the South Africa ruling could transform the Olympics from a mere showcase into a real target. It certainly will if Edwards has anything to do with it. "This new issue will force the black man to fight," he insisted. "They've virtually said the hell with us. Now we'll have to reply: Let Whitey run his own Olympics."
Until Friday night there was reason to doubt whether Edwards and the other militant leaders could run their own boycott—without defections or violence. The movement to boycott the NYAC meet began smoothly about a month ago. As soon as Smith and Evans began talking about it, many athletes pledged their support for the idea. Negroes from the New York area, long familiar with NYAC policies, were among the first to join. The public and Catholic school athletic leagues soon pulled out, followed by entire teams—including many white runners—from Villanova, Georgetown and Manhattan. Other athletes, trying to avoid rupturing team loyalties or offending old friends, came up with a variety of excuses not to enter. Earl McCullouch had to speak at a banquet; O. J. Simpson couldn't "fit it into my training schedule." When faced with the decisions of Bob Seagren and other U.S. teammates to compete, O.J. shrugged and said, "I don't think Bob will cross a picket line. But if he does I hope he wins. As for me, I wouldn't run that weekend if my mother was holding the meet."
As the meet approached, it became clear that the boycott would be widespread and the competition poor. Meet Director Ray Lumpp patched together a field of predominantly white athletes bolstered only by a strong foreign contingent; this too fell through when the seven-man Russian team dropped out at the last minute, and West German star Bodo Tummler didn't show up. A few top-class Negroes like Jim Hines, John Thomas and Bob Beamon remained in the entries, but they would have detracted little from the impact of the boycott if they had been left alone.
Edwards wouldn't leave them alone. He openly threatened them with retaliation by "people back in their home towns," and injected a spontaneous protest with an unnecessary atmosphere of violence. He even invited H. Rap Brown to his premeet press conference, and Rap obliged by suggesting that the Garden be blown up. This was one occasion when such flamboyant and largely empty threats could only hurt the blacks. While hundreds of athletes were boycotting because of a principle they believed in, the NYAC's defenders in the press were able to focus on the few—like Hines and Thomas—who stayed away due to threats. Anonymous phone calls to athletes by militants not connected with Edwards added to the false impression that the NYAC was a victim of intimidation rather than its own practices.
The mood was tense and explosive as the pickets gathered outside the Garden early Friday evening. The mere mention of Rap Brown's name always attracts hordes of police; although Rap never did show up, the police did—in a body that sometimes outnumbered the pickets. Ken Noel provided the first dramatic moment of the evening by standing in front of a bus at one entrance, silently-holding up the Olympic boycott poster that reads: RATHER THAN RUN AND JUMP FOR MEDALS, WE ARE STANDING UP FOR HUMANITY. WON'T YOU JOIN US? The bus driver, chauffeuring athletes from Holy Cross and Providence, was unmoved by the plea. Cursing soundlessly through the tinted-glass windshield, he inched the bus forward. Noel stood his ground as other demonstrators picked up one chant that was heard throughout the night: "Muhammad AH is our champ."
Police huddled nearby to decide what to do. The chants grew louder but the crowd remained orderly. "I can't afford to get arrested this early in the night," Noel said. "Tell me when they come to get me." They never did come. The bus finally backed out of the driveway and headed for another entrance; as the crowd cheered Noel. The runners from the bus were hustled through a side door into the Garden as the crowd followed, but no move was made to touch them. "It was a victory," said a kid near Noel, "and it didn't require any violence."
It set the tone for much of the evening. Threats and demagoguery may be part of Edwards' routine, but violence was clearly not in his plans Friday night. He marched at the front of the crowd, towering over everyone and occasionally stopping to give speeches through a megaphone provided by police. Whenever things seemed likely to get out of control, he steered the group in another direction. "Follow Harry, follow Harry," people kept yelling. "Yeah," sighed a cop, half sarcastically but half out of relief, "please follow Harry."
Several times young marchers began screaming, "Let's go inside, let's storm the damn place." Each time Edwards would give a brief speech that sounded properly militant to the kids but ended up saying, "Why get our heads busted to get in with a bunch of honkies? We're here to keep the blacks out, not to go in and join the damn whites."
Inside, there was little to see. The crowd was announced as 15,925 based on ticket sales, but the number that showed up was closer to 13,000. "It's weird," said Mays, who used his participant ticket to sneak in for a quick look. "It doesn't feel like a real meet." Richmond Flowers, the Tennessee moderate who said he participated only because he didn't want to identify with Edwards and Rap Brown, added, "Any time you field a meet without Negroes, then the great ones aren't going to be there."
Nine Negroes competed and one other, Jim Dennis of the Houston Striders, was late for the 60-yard dash after being delayed by traffic and by the pickets. "I broke my glasses when I got shoved on the way in," he said. "It wasn't a punch or anything and I'm not sure it was intentional." The other Negroes were not bothered as they crossed the picket line. Five of the Negroes were from the University of Texas at El Paso. "I asked each one if he wanted to come," said Coach Wayne Vandenburg, "and each one said yes. There was no pressure. I told them again tonight that they could back out and I'd never hold it against them." Beamon, who was obviously nervous and admitted he had come mainly for the free trip home to his family in New York, won the long jump. Frazetta Parham in the girls' high jump and Lennox Miller in the sprint were the other Negro winners.
"I am not in favor of discrimination by the New York AC," said Miller, a Jamaican, "but I don't want to be dictated to by outsiders."
"Did it feel strange to be in an all-white dash field?" he was asked.
"Oh," he said with a slight smile, "I still had to run hard to win."
As the meet dragged on, Edwards called his supporters together outside for a final speech. "You people who want to go inside," he began, "you can go ahead and get your heads busted. But as for me, I think we should go up to Harlem and be with our brothers. The boycott has succeeded, the New York AC is dead. Why stay around here. There are no black brothers here."
"It's reported that there are 10 blacks inside," said a man next to him. Edwards put his hand over the bullhorn and snapped, "You tell them that—if you want to see the place burn."
Nothing burned, and only a few minor skirmishes marred a relatively peaceful demonstration. Edwards has a charisma that could probably keep any black crowd under his control. But the damaged feelings caused by this boycott will remain, and continue to incite tempers as the possibility of a far larger boycott draws near. "It's an insult," said Lennox Miller, "to be threatened by people who aren't even athletes."
"It's an insult," said Charlie Mays, "to watch Negroes go inside while we stand up for our rights. White guys like Richmond Flowers are my friends and I respect their decisions. But I can't forgive Miller or Beamon or the others."
"I really respect the guys who stayed out of the meet," said Flowers. "I only wish there were some way to moderate all this." He paused for a moment, as four all-white relay teams raced by on the track, before a subdued, predominantly white crowd and large blocks of empty seats. "I must admit," he said, "that I can't offer any solution. I just wish somebody would."