Dr. Harry Edwards and Howard Bryant Explore the Legacy of the 1968 Olympic Protests
By: Nick Santangelo | Photography: Colleen Stepanian
Fifty years and a series of kneel-downs later, have things changed? Can things change still? And if they can, who’s responsible for making them change and how can they effect that change? They’re questions that sociologist and civil rights activist Dr. Harry Edwards has spent his career and life exploring. Last Thursday night, he didn’t hold back in telling ESPN’s Howard Bryant exactly how he felt about those questions.
“I don’t care what the era was, what the movement was,” Dr. Edwards said to Bryant. “We’ve always come out of it as a people, and we’ve come out better.” Whether it was the Civil War, the labor movement, anti-war movements or the civil rights movement, Dr. Edwards told Bryant that “we came out of it better.” And with another movement happening now, he believes America and its oppressed or marginalized peoples will do so again. But when they do, it won’t be the end because there is no end to the movement. There’s always room for things to improve further still.
Of course, Dr. Edwards wasn’t saying this just for Bryant’s benefit. He was speaking before a crowd of roughly 300 at the Temple University Performing Arts Center during an event co-hosted by the College of Liberal Arts’ History, Sociology and Economics departments as well as Temple’s School of Sport, Tourism and Hospitality.
Dr. Edwards and Bryant’s conversation was meant as a commemoration of the 1968 Olympic protests in Mexico City when U.S. Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos each held up a fist as a black power salute while on the podium during the playing of the national anthem. But the talk was about more than just that one moment. It was about how black athletes’ fight for more equal rights has continued to this day and will continue long after human lightning rod Colin Kaepernick is out of the spotlight.
What exactly this wave of protests achieve and when and how the next wave will occur is a mystery, Dr. Edwards told the crowd. After all, no one ever saw Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, the Black Panther Party, Angela Davis or Barack Obama coming. “And most of them didn’t believe it when they got there,” said Dr. Edwards. “The dynamics predict that there will be another phase of this ongoing struggle. Our circumstances are struggled and diverse.”
Dr. Edwards repeatedly returned to the concept that there are no final victories, no “formation of that perfect union.” Therefore, it’s the responsibility of every generation to work towards a more perfect union. Black athletes, he explained, have played a particularly prominent role in making that happen across many generations. From Jackie Robinson to Muhammad Ali to LeBron James to Kaepernick, they’ve risked public ridicule and—perhaps for all but James—put their livelihoods and privileges of competing at the highest levels of their sports on the line.
Speaking during a media availability shortly before the event, Bryant spoke to how he sees a change from yesterday’s prominent black athletes to today’s and identified three reasons for that change. For starters, James, probably the most recognizable athlete in the world today, simply has a very different personality than his forebear, Michael Jordan. The way the games themselves are used as marketing vehicles for Americana, the military and police are also different today than it was 20 years ago. Bryant recalled how pre-911, there simply wasn’t as much American flag rigmarole before and during games. Finally, he touched on the advent of social media.
“If you are of a certain generation,” said Bryant, “if you remember Rodney King, before Rodney King we had been told so many times about the black claim about police brutality, ‘Well if there was only something, if there was only some proof otherwise it's just their word against your word.’ And then there was the Rodney King video. And then people took that and said, ‘Well, you know, we don't quite get to see everything that happened before the video.’"
But in 2018, explained Bryant, everyone can see police interactions with black men from start to finish on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, etc. And while there may still be public debate about the justification or lack thereof for police violence in these videos, athletes like James, Kaepernick, Eric Reid and Malcolm Jenkins felt it was time to speak out, to take a knee, to raise a fist, to make donations and to meet with public policy leaders.
there are a lot of people who are offended by the way they've treated these guys
For their part, Kaepernick and Reid lost their jobs. Millionaire jobs, yes, but jobs all the same. But while Kaepernick remains out of work, Reid was signed by the Carolina Panthers just hours before Bryant and Dr. Edwards spoke. Is it right to take a cynical view that this was merely a public relations move by a franchise whose outgoing owner was plagued by a racism scandal and an NFL at large embroiled with controversy and lawsuits over Reid and Kaepernick? Or should people find cause for hope and optimism in the move? Bryant believes it’s both things. Businessmen, he said, are about business.
“But I also think too, that they realize that for all the flag waving and the flyovers and everything else,” continued Bryant, “there are a lot of people who are offended by the way they've treated these guys. So when we do ask that question, ‘Is this who we are, as Americans?’ I think they realize that the answer is no. That we're supposed to let people have opportunities. That you're supposed to have [the opportunity], and opinions aren't supposed to cost you your life. I'm sorry, not your life, your livelihood, or your life for that matter.”
Why They Fight
Later that evening in the Performing Arts Center, Dr. Edwards would recount a saying that the smartest guy in the room is the one with the most zeroes in his paycheck. At various times in sports circles, that’s been Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods. Neither chose to really use their platforms to speak out for civil rights, to push an idea of establishing that more perfect union. Today, LeBron James pulls in over $35 million in salary alone, but that personality that Bryant mentioned spurs him to speak out.
Some famous athletes Dr. Edwards tried and failed to push toward making political statements in the past didn’t resist doing so. They didn’t feel like they had to speak for all blacks. After all, Larry Bird never felt like he had to speak for all white people from Appalachia. Additionally, there’s so much to lose by speaking out. Rhetorically, Bryant asked who would want to protest anyway.
“You would have to be a little bit nuts,” replied Dr. Edwards, “but still the circumstances compelled athletes who are conscious, athletes who understand, who get it, to make these kinds of statements.”
But why is that? Why does this environment exist where so many are threatened and enraged by black athletes who use the raising of the flag and the playing of the Star Spangled Banner as opportune times to deliver their message? Colin Kaepernick changed his protest from sitting to kneeling at the behest of U.S.
You would have to be a little bit nuts
Army veteran Nate Boyer, who told the quarterback that soldiers will take a knee in front of their fallen comrades as a sign of respect. Kaepernick, Malcolm Jenkins and other black athletes who’ve protested have repeatedly said they respect the military and are not protesting them. Still, many Americans conflate the police brutality protests with military disrespect. Dr. Edwards has a theory for why this is.
“We are a nation that was founded upon an idea. We’re not a nation that was founded upon thousands of years of some homogenous people on this continent,” he explained. “We were founded on an idea. And we are a nation of immigrants, formerly enslaved people and indigenous peoples. And somehow we developed this idea that we could become one out of many—e Pluribus Unum.”
As such, Dr. Edwards sees a natural tendency in Americans to rally around the flag and the anthem that does not exist as strongly in other nations. When a football player takes a knee or an Olympian raises a fist before that flag, then, it can feel like a threat to all Americans. That cuts to the very core of what holds the entire country together, but Dr. Edwards was adamant that you don’t take these actions “unless you love this country, unless you believe that we can form that more perfect union.”
Those who are opposed to the protests have done a great job of owning the vocabulary behind it. Think about it: they’re not often called what they are. No, instead of being referred to as civil rights or police brutality protests, they’re usually called anthem protests. There is power in that popular vernacular. It undermines and obfuscates what the athletes are protesting and reframes them as being adversarial towards soldiers and veterans.
Bryant said the players have done “a very poor job in allowing themselves to be defined.” He believes the players now want to redefine things, but just as in sports, it’s more difficult to come from behind than when you start on even ground or take an early lead yourself. But the situation maybe isn’t completely irredeemable.
“What can the players do?” mused Bryant. “I always thought that the players had a good opportunity to incorporate. I think they had a great chance to incorporate a lot the police brutality to the anti-police brutality organizations within police forces. There are numerous organizations of black police officers in Baltimore, in D.C., in New York, in Oakland, who are trying to fight these issues inside. So bring those guys to the game, have them talk about this, have them, you know, you need allies and I think that they allowed the language of this because there was sort of a little gap in the leadership.”
Joining the Cause
Not everyone has turned their back on these athletes, of course. Nike recently kicked off a controversial ad campaign featuring Kaepernick. Dr. Edwards asked the audience if they applauded the move by the sneaker giant. Several dozen hands went up, but it appeared that more than half didn’t. Bryant and Dr. Edwards entertained the idea that this is ultimately a company that’s only going to make moves it believes are in its best interests as a business.
That may very well be the case. For-profit businesses exist to make profits, after all. But Dr. Edwards thinks there is more at play here. During difficult times with great uncertainty, he said, “it becomes incumbent on the corporations to step in and make statements that essentially harken back to who we are as a society and what we ought to be as a nation.”
Is now such a time? Dr. Edwards believes that the 147 black people being killed by police officers indicates that it is indeed. He also used this opportunity to address the reality of 4,700 blacks being killed by other blacks. Many in black communities, he claimed, are reticent to call the police when they see violence happening because they have seen so many blacks killed by officers. This had made them fearful of the criminal justice system. That left a vacuum for somebody like Nike “to stand up and say that this is America too.”
But surely the country shouldn’t rely purely on a textile maker to forward the cause. Female athletes, predicted Dr. Edwards, would be a big part of the movement in the future. He sees a wave of pro-choice women in sports protesting for their right to start families only when they’re ready so that they can spend their youths playing the games they love for a living.
football is about as close to war as you can get and still stay civil
An audience member also asked what white men sympathetic to the cause can do. He asked that they not shy away from what are sometimes difficult conversations and that they show humility in the face of white supremacist movements.
As the event wound down, Dr. Edwards and Bryant fielded a question from a black female Temple freshman questioning the treatment of college athletes in the wake of scandals that have plagued other universities. Bryant said he’s spoken to many football players who feel like they put their lives at risk by playing the game. Dr. Edwards offered an even more severe take on the sport. Yet, he still sees a reason for black athletes to continue playing it.
“If football were a factory where they were manufacturing desks or pencils or whatever, they would put them out of business,” he said. OSHA would move in and put them out of business.”
Continuing he said “football is about as close to war as you can get and still stay civil” thanks to its risk of players getting CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) from concussions. That’s causing players to drop out of the game from Pop Warner all the way up to college and even the NFL. The one demographic that isn’t dropping out? Blacks. “They’re still getting out of dangerous areas where they grew up and getting to go to college,” said Dr. Edwards. He spoke of how the sport exploits blacks football and whether or not it can survive. But whether it’s a game of pigskin or something else that sees athletes of tomorrow protesting, the real issue of achieving more equal rights through protests is not going to go away, concluded Dr. Edwards.
“This is an issue that’s going to continue.”