Race In America

Generational civil rights leaders gather on UC Berkeley panel to pass baton

NBC Universal, Inc.

Though so many of the towering sports figures of the civil rights movement in the 1960s have departed this spinning rock, we’re still blessed with a few lions chasing justice and equal rights, and three of them will be under one roof this week Berkeley.

Dr. Harry Edwards, 81, who conceived the 1968 Olympic protest by some American athletes, will be in the room.

So, too, will 1968 Olympic medalists Drs. John Carlos, 78, and Tommie Smith, 79. Their protest on the medal stand in Mexico, head bowed, black-gloves fists aloft, is one of the most memorable and, in some quarters, controversial images in American history.

Edwards, Carlos and Smith are the featured panelists at UC-Berkeley for “Black History Celebration: Champions of Justice” at the university’s Alumni House from 4-6:30 p.m. Friday.

This generational summit of giants comes courtesy of Dr. Ty Douglas, an associate athletic director at UC-Berkeley and the university’s first executive dedicated to Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Belonging and Justice.

“I just felt like we need to bring these brothers together one more time,” Douglas told NBC Sports Bay Area. “One more time. In California.

“Bring them together and love on them. Let them know that the baton is being passed and we love them and value them, and need to ensure that the next generation knows that it stands on their shoulders.”

The 1960s were the most turbulent decade of the 20th century, largely because politicians took steps to bridge the racial divide. The 1968 Civil Rights Act, signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson, was a sweeping anti-discrimination bill that many citizens fought against. Conflict was a natural repercussion.

With America undergoing change, Edwards, a 25-year-old instructor at San Jose State University, conceived the Olympic Project for Human Rights. The goal was to use the international competition, such as the Olympic Games, to illuminate the plight of those victimized by the power structure.

Smith was an introspective student-athlete at SJSU. Carlos, brash in every way, had transferred from East Texas State to SJSU, which had one of the best track and field programs in the country. They were teammates and competitors who aligned with the activism promoted by Edwards.

Edwards, a longtime East Bay resident, completed his Ph. D at Cornell University and became a professor of Sociology for nearly three decades at Cal. He also served as a consultant for several local professional sports teams, including the 49ers and the Warriors. After brief hiccup in the wake of the protest, he emerged as one of America’s leading voices on social inequality.

Smith and Carlos, however, paid a steep price for being, literally, the picture of dissent. They were immediately banished from the Olympic Village and returned to a torrent of hostility in mainstream America.

Only in the last 20 years have their dual purpose began to receive widespread recognition and respect, with both Smith and Carlos receiving numerous national and civic awards related to their courage, advocacy and action for human rights.

“I really felt like we needed to bridge the world between the traditional academic space and the athletic space,” Douglas said. “And Dr. Edwards is that in the flesh. I’m really trying to make sure that current student-athletes know who he is, and what Tommie Smith and John Carlos and other leaders of that era did.

“This is a passing of the baton. All three of these gentlemen are up in age, and it’s not a secret that Dr. Edward is, as he says, ‘On the clock.’ And Tommie Smith is also facing some health challenges.”

Edwards, a commanding 6-foot-8 275 pounds when healthy, was diagnosed in 2022 with bone cancer. It’s a nasty battle, and he’s facing it with tremendous dignity. He is determined to set foot on the campus where he spent a large portion of life teaching students, whether curious or committed.

Carlos and Smith, both live outside California, feel that it’s important to be with each other, for perhaps the last time.

“It’s like a passing of the baton,” Douglas said. “I want to make sure they know that our hands are committed holding onto it and running with even greater vigor."

Edwards, Carlos and Smith still have a voice. With distinctly disparate personalities, the last 55 years have brought among them various levels of turmoil, even occasional animosity, but they’re forever linked in history for their relentless efforts to illuminate and confront American apartheid.

The past eight years have stolen many of those who stood tall in the face of injustice. Muhammad Ali died in 2016, Frank Robinson in 2019, Joe Morgan in 2020 and Henry Aaron in 2021. We lost Bill Russell 19 months ago, Jim Brown nine months ago.

It’s special when three legends in the winter of life can come together. It’s OK to give them flowers while they can smell them.

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