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Supporting the Protests

BY ANDY ANDERSON
PHOTO BY PETER SPURRIER

In the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the protests that have happened all across the country, people have remembered the protests and marches of the summer of 1968. In any photographic history of 1968, you will find the iconic photographic image of American track athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos standing on the Olympic podium with upraised clenched fists in black gloves. Today, there is renewed interest in that moment and in their gesture.

Smith and Carlos were inspired to protest the social issues that were sweeping the country. Like many Black Americans, they saw the lack of progress of the civil rights movement, epitomized by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination the previous March. Harry Edwards, a Black sociology professor at San Jose State, had founded the Olympic Project for Human Rights, which demanded that more Black coaches be hired and threatened a boycott of the Mexico City Olympics if South Africa and Rhodesia were permitted to compete. Their gesture promoting Black Pride and social justice has become the most famous image of that, or arguably, any Olympics.

A post that has been making the rounds on Facebook shows a copy of a letter that Harry Parker, coach of the Harvard eight that competed in the 1968 Games, received from the president of the U.S. Olympic Committee. It reads:

 “Upon my return from Mexico, I noticed on my desk a mimeographed letter…signed by eight of your crew members. What I have not been able to understand is why, with the selection of the Harvard Eight-Oared Crew to represent the United States at the Olympic Games, most of those crew members immediately expelled from their minds the purpose and the objective for which they were selected and embarked on a rather strenuous program of civil rights and social justice with other members of our Olympic delegation to Mexico City. Civil rights and the promotion of social justice may have their place in various facets of society, but certainly this sort of promotion has no place in the Olympic Games.”

Perhaps most infuriating, Douglas Roby, the USOC president, went on to lambaste Coach Parker.

 “After meeting with you in Mexico City and having held a brief examination of some of your athletes, it is my feeling that you are probably the one most responsible for taking the Harvard crew, and possibly their minds, away from the purpose for which we took this group to Mexico City to represent the United States.

“At one time I, personally, was in favor of disqualifying you and your crew for acts grossly unbecoming to members of our Olympic Team. I am now glad that I did not encourage such a harsh action, for I feel that the miserable performance of you and your crew at Mexico City will stand as a permanent record against you and the athletes which you led.

“As a boy I had great admiration and respect for Harvard and the men it produced. Certainly serious intellectual degeneration has taken place in this once great university if you and several members of your crew are examples of the type of men that are within its walls.”

Sincerely yours,

Douglas F. Roby

This was more than just a “shut up and row” letter. The venom unleashed on Parker, who had the gall to defend his athletes and their right to have opinions about social justice and to express them in letters to their teammates, can have come only from a deep well of racism.

Why blast the Harvard oarsmen? I spoke with Paul Hoffman, the coxswain, and the one who more than anyone else was in deep trouble with the USOC.

 “You have to remember that the summer of 1968 was a time of unprecedented chaos. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated. There were violent protests in most American cities. We were mired in Vietnam. The Democratic Convention in Chicago produced what was officially called a ‘police riot.’ Protesters were beaten and tear-gassed by the aggressive policing that Mayor Richard J. Daley unleashed.

“It seemed like the world was coming apart, and here we were, nine white guys going up and down the river all summer. [The Olympics were held in mid-October.] Most of the guys in the crew wondered if we shouldn’t be doing more. We decided that if we won the Olympic trials, we would speak to Professor Harry Edwards and learn about the Olympic Project for Human Rights.”

In July, after the closest, most exciting Olympic trials race in history–Harvard beat Penn by .05 of a second–the oarsmen invited Edwards to Cambridge to meet with them. Before the meeting was to take place, the oarsmen realized they had not informed their coach. They met with Parker the night before Edwards’ visit and told him Edwards was coming to the boathouse to speak to them. Parker turned to them and said, “I trust that by now you know me well enough to know that I, too, support these views and goals. You also know that I’m a rowing coach, and we need to be sure that nothing interferes with our training together.” They agreed.

They didn’t quit rowing and devote themselves to the cause, of course. They had put in far too much work to let themselves be distracted from their goal of an Olympic medal. But they did hold a press conference with Edwards, where they announced their support of the Olympic Project for Human Rights and sent a letter to every Olympic-team athlete asking them to begin a dialogue with their teammates, especially Black athletes.

 And what blasphemous things did the letter that so outraged Mr. Roby say?

“It is not our intention or desire to embarrass our country or to use athletics for ulterior purposes. But we feel strongly that the racial crisis is a total cultural crisis. The position of the black athlete cannot be separated from his position as a black man or woman in America. America can only acquire greater dignity and greater hope by facing its most grievous problem openly and before the world…Surely the spirit of the Olympic Games requires us, as white participants, to explore all means at our disposal to further the cause of brotherhood and the claims of equality of our black colleagues.”

You owe it to yourself to watch the video of the 200-meter men’s track finals. Carlos, the world record holder, looks strong, and then Smith finds an extra gear and is gone. Carlos looks over at him, the cardinal sin of sprinting – think of looking out of the boat – and Australian Peter Norman noses out Carlos for the silver. It’s a beautiful race. Later that afternoon, on their way out to the awards ceremony, coxswain Paul Hoffman congratulated Smith and Carlos as they prepared to walk into the stadium. Norman asked Hoffman if he had another Olympic Project button for him to wear because “Australia also has racism; it also needs human rights.”

 Hoffman didn’t have another but he invited Norman to wear his button on the podium. When he said yes, he gave it to him. Smith and Carlos mounted the podium in black socks, holding their shoes in a gesture meant to draw attention to how many Black people were impoverished. They received their medals and proudly and defiantly raised their black-gloved hands.

Immediately, the firestorm began. Olympic officials were outraged. The purity of the Olympics was despoiled in their eyes. Men in power never see irony, and the International Olympic Committee members were no exception. The professed Olympic ideals of excellence, respect, and friendship apparently did not include open support of social justice or human rights.

Someone saw Hoffman give Norman his button, He returned to the press box, where he had been sitting, and was introduced to Smith and Carlos’ wives.

 “Coxswains have a lot of down time at the Olympics,” Hoffman says, “and I enjoyed track and had just seen a great race. I thought ‘If an Australian wants to join our guys by wearing a Project button, why not?’”

Three days later, the night before the finals, Hoffman and Parker were summoned by U.S. Olympic officials to a fancy hotel in Mexico City, where they were grilled for hours about their part, meager though it was, in the protest. Hoffman had heard that he might not be allowed to race and feared that if that were the case, his crew would not get in the boat. According to Kathy Keeler, Parker’s widow, Harry had said that if the coxswain was not in the boat, the crew would not race. Finally, grudgingly, the officials allowed them to return late at night to the Olympic Village to let the crew know that they could race the next day.

The race did not go well. The 7,000-foot altitude and various GI problems had dogged the oarsmen since arrival. For the finals, they had to rearrange the boat, including the stroke. Their sixth place was crushing.

Parker received the letter a few days after arriving home. He didn’t share it with the crew for several years, most likely thinking he should shield them from its damaging words. Roby had copied the president of Harvard, Nathan Pusey. When the president and Harry met, Parker asked how he proposed to respond. Pusey said, “I don’t think it deserves a reply.” Parker concurred, and the matter ended. You can find the full letters in My Life in Boats, Fast and Slow, the 2018 book by six man Andy Larkin.

In recent months, as Black Lives Matter has come to the forefront, the media have once again focused on the Smith/Carlos protest. As a nation, we are much more diverse, but money and power still reside disproportionately in the hands of white Americans. Not all that was hoped for has changed after 1968. The Harvard crew’s efforts didn’t effect the change that they, too, sought, but they did give us an example of trying to do the right thing. The conversation has changed from not being racist to how to be anti-racist. Action, not words, is what a younger generation is demanding. This time, let’s get it right.

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