Harry Edwards, a giant of sports activism, still has people shook
50 years ago, he worked with John Carlos and Tommie Smith for Black Power. Now, he’s talking with Colin Kaepernick.
At the first full practice of the San Francisco 49ers’ training camp in Santa Clara, California, this summer, Harry Edwards stood alone, surveying the football field from behind dark sunglasses. For more than three decades, he’s helped evaluate team players and culture. But over the past half-century in American sports, he has starred in a great many other roles as well.
Even among professional big men, he catches the eye. He is 6 feet, 8 inches tall, bearded, bald and historically black. That’s not merely about the curated head-to-toe midnight of his T-shirt, slacks and skullcap, the deep, dark brownness of his skin, or the ever-present shades that keep you guessing at all the trouble he’s seen. It’s about his obsidian intellect. It’s about the way he gestures and riffs when he speaks, like a jazz virtuoso, but not the smooth kind. More like that brother on sax who is about to chop you in the throat with his solo.
A player walks over to greet him. “Hey, man, you over here in the VIP section. I thought it was too, you know, exclusive,” jokes All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman, a man with his own reputation for bringing the boom.
Fifty years ago, Edwards was the lead organizer behind the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR), which led American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos to raise black-gloved Black Power salutes atop the Olympic medal stand in Mexico City — the most widely recognized protest in sports history.
Now, athlete activism is having another extended moment in the American conversation. NFL players are kneeling, basketball players wear “I Can’t Breathe” shirts and championship teams reject visits to the White House. It’s a moment of new cultural and economic influence, and Edwards helped usher all of that into existence. And he’s still here, counseling Colin Kaepernick and consulting for the 49ers and the Golden State Warriors.
He has lived long enough for some of his most radical positions — stances that put him in the crosshairs of the FBI, that got many of his contemporaries killed or silenced — are taken now as articles of faith. But the clock is ticking, and he still needs to teach, to criticize, to cement the history of a movement and his legacy in it. At 75, the lion in winter knows what time it is.
Edwards recalls meeting Martin Luther King Jr. when the civil rights leader supported the Olympic Project for Human Rights. “I stood up to shake his hand, and he said, ‘Wow, no wonder these white folks are afraid of you. Man, you’re huge!’ ”
He is viscerally imposing physically. But Edwards also has had an outsize influence over the history, culture and understanding of the role of sports in society. And those two things are not unrelated. If you draw a line between the Smith and Carlos protest in 1968 and former 49er Kaepernick taking a knee in 2016 to protest police brutality and racial injustice, Edwards looms large, in dark glasses, at nearly every point along the way.
- As a visiting professor at San Jose State University, where he had been a student track star and captain of the basketball team, he helped spearhead a protest against black athlete discrimination that led to the cancellation of the school’s opening football game in 1967. That activism evolved into the Olympic Project for Human Rights, with Edwards as its chief organizer and public face, urging blacks to boycott the 1968 Summer Olympics. That led to that iconic image of Smith and Carlos, who were part of the famed “Speed City” at San Jose State.
- Edwards invented a field of study, the sociology of sports, and provided the foundation for all its assertions, chief among them: that sports is a recapitulation of the power relationships in society and you can’t have a non-racist sports-industrial complex within the context of a racist society, “any more than you can have a chicken lay a duck egg,” he says.
- Beginning in the mid-1980s, he began consulting on issues of diversity for the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball. He arranged seminars on finances and social interactions and essentially invented the modern system of player counseling and support. He and former 49ers coach Bill Walsh began the NFL’s Minority Coaches Internship and Outreach Program that produced head coaches Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Marvin Lewis of the Cincinnati Bengals and Hue Jackson of the Cleveland Browns.
- In the wake of Al Campanis’ assertions that blacks lacked “some of the necessities” to be baseball managers in 1987, Major League Baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth hired Edwards to develop training and development opportunities for women and minorities.
- And he consulted with the Golden State Warriors and the NBA, specializing in personnel issues and counseling.
“He was like the dominant figure in the room,” says Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, who invited Edwards to talk to the team last year, “and it’s not easy to stand out in a room full of world-class athletes.”
If you’re going to spend decades fighting, “no way could you survive without that kind of confidence and presence,” Kerr says. “He’s got opinions and he is sharp, sharp, and he’s gonna let you know it.”
Anybody who studies the student movement of the 1960s has “got to come through Harry Edwards in two ways: as a student, who revolutionized the university, and as a teacher, who went back,” says Eugene Redmond, emeritus professor of English at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville. Redmond knew Edwards growing up in East St. Louis, Illinois, and calls him “a major factor, a major element in driving black power, black art, black studies and the sociology of sports, which everyone knows means black people.”
Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, calls Edwards’ 1969 book, The Revolt of the Black Athlete “a clarion call.” Edwards “helped me believe what was possible.”
Bunch had been a high school and college athlete and admired sports stars. Edwards “basically reminded us that in essence they were cattle… that they didn’t have the control over their own destinies. And so he felt that, like so many people, that in order to change a country, let’s change the area I know best first. And for him, it was athletics.
“I think that in some ways, he is the best of what came out of the 1960s,” Bunch says. “A sense of clear notions about what is wrong, in this case, in terms of athletics. But he then used that sort of clarity and candidly passion to help stimulate protests but also to then evolve that passion and work in the system to change the NFL, for example.”
Edwards’ father, also named Harry Edwards, was a tall man and powerfully built, and he always wanted his son to play professional football. Now the son has four Super Bowl rings from the 49ers, Edwards likes to point out. “I just had to get a Ph.D. in sociology from Cornell to get them,” he says.
The elder Edwards, an ex-con and a laborer, was smart but unschooled. He worked two jobs to support a wife and eight kids in the Southend neighborhood of East St. Louis aptly named The Bottoms. For a time, they were a lower working-class family with higher aspirations. Then his mother left, and his father left the kids mostly alone in a house without indoor plumbing that they called “The Fort” because their backs were always against the wall. He and his siblings slipped into what he called “the underfooting,” children who went hungry and had to assume responsibility for their own survival.
When Edwards was 12, his mother returned for her children. Edwards was the only one who opted to stay with his father, because “I didn’t know where she was going and I was playing football so I could take a shower every day at the school,” he later wrote of the decision. He only saw her once more, years later.
In 1960, after Edwards graduated from high school, a family friend bought him a train ticket west, where he enrolled in Fresno City College and started studying until the library closed — it was the beginning of an obsessive library habit that made his eyes sensitive to light. He transferred on a track and field scholarship to San Jose State University, where he set a school record in discus and qualified for the Olympic trials. He was also captain of the basketball team. But the discriminatory treatment of black athletes left him alienated and angry. He quit the track team before the Olympic trials.
He was on draft boards for the San Diego Chargers and Minnesota Vikings, and the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers expressed interest too. Instead, he decided to go to Cornell to get a master’s degree and, eventually, a doctorate. His father thought he was throwing away a black man’s best chance, the chance he never got, and three years passed before he spoke to his son again.
While he was at Cornell, Edwards attended weekend meetings organized by Malcolm X in New York City and devoured works by black writers. One night he heard loud cheering from the lobby of his dorm, and when he went to investigate he found his white schoolmates celebrating Malcolm X’s murder.
He returned to San Jose State to teach after finishing his master’s degree. He and some friends began protesting the financial and housing discrimination faced by black athletes. Edwards was coming to understand the ways sports could be leveraged for political gain. He was surveilled by the FBI. He began getting death threats.
In 1970, after protests demanding more minority faculty and students, the University of California, Berkeley hired him. But despite the school’s reputation as a cradle of the counterculture, Edwards’ first years there were contentious.
Although he published widely and taught oversubscribed classes for years, Edwards was denied tenure in 1977. Media coverage and campus protests over the decision drew national and even international attention. “I am going to turn the lights out at the University of California at Berkeley. I am going to be the last to leave,” he told The New York Times. The decision was reversed that summer, and Edwards remained at Berkeley for nearly another 25 years.
And he remained battle ready. Before Kaepernick decided to take a knee to protest racial injustice and police brutality in 2016, he and Edwards had ongoing conversations. Edwards says he didn’t advise him about what to do, “which would be inappropriate and ill-advised.”
“These athletes are quite capable of thinking on their own and coming to their own conclusions,” he said. Instead, he detailed “the spectrum of options as well as the spectrum of outcomes.”
“I told him the death threats are going to come in,” says Edwards. That people would say it’s affecting his game, his career, their enjoyment of the sport. And that there was only so much he could respond to. “Because they’re not going to understand that there are some things that are more precious than money. They’re not going to understand that there are some things that are more precious than your career. They’re not going to understand that there are some things that are more precious than life itself.”
Years ago, Edwards and his friend Arthur Ashe, the activist and tennis champion, would appear on panels together — maybe about NCAA eligibility requirements, or hiring black coaches. Ashe would volunteer to take the more militant position. And people would applaud him.
Edwards would give a more moderate analysis, peppered with a joke. But, he says, “If you’re 6-8 and 275, 280 pounds with an Ivy League Ph.D., angry, articulate, committed and so forth, a lot of folks get scared, and not all of them are white.
“I’ve always had that advantage when I’m dealing with people,” Edwards says. “They assume that this is just another big, dumb, black jock who can’t think, and there’s nothing I came to enjoy more than dueling with intellectually unprepared, unarmed and unaware people because eventually they wind up crafting the very arguments that I use to strangle them with.”
At 75, he can still play Harry Scary. In late June, he was at the College Sports Information Directors of America conference outside Washington, D.C., where he was inducted in the organization’s Hall of Fame.
On the first day, he hijacked his panel on unconscious bias, thundering, “Don’t tell me about it being unconscious. … There is a total structure of social, physiological and cultural scaffolding that allows individual bias and prejudice to find affirmation in discriminatory actions. That’s not unconscious. It’s deliberate. It’s by design. It’s exactly and precisely what it was drawn up to be!”
At the awards ceremony, he took the stage in his signature all black, including the sunglasses and a Nehru jacket. He predicted that the NFL would soon be all black and that white athletes were going to have to find their voices and take a stand against racism.
“Every time he’s been speaking since he’s been here, he’s shaken everything up,” said Kenisha Rhone, chairwoman of the Black College Sports Information Directors of America. She studied sociology as an undergrad and called meeting him a “total fan moment.”
When one young man ventured that perhaps Edwards should, perhaps, soften his position and tone to better reach people he’d made uncomfortable, Edwards cut him off.
“They are never going to be comfortable” with change, with addressing racism or women’s equality, he said. “But I found out early on it’s not necessary for them to be comfortable. It’s necessary for them to deal with the issues. And if they’re not going to deal with the issues, whether you ease it up on them or whether they have to face it, their response is going to be the same: ‘That’s too harsh.’ ‘I don’t want to go that far.’ ‘What do you mean?’ So let’s get that out of the way,” he said. “My thing is to get them out of their comfort zone because their comfort zone is with their foot on my neck. Their comfort zone is with women chained to the damn stove and the bed.
“So don’t tell me nothing about being upset and uncomfortable, brother.”
That bent to call it all out, to see and say the truth, has roots in Edwards’ childhood, where he recalls how his father changed the way he talked whenever he was around white people. “He would diminish himself, and one day I even asked him, ‘Why do you talk to them people like that?’ He said, ‘Because I’ve got kids to feed.’ ” Edwards understood the situation, he says, “but that was the beginning of me making up my mind, I don’t care what the price is, there are some things I’m simply not going to do. There are some things I’m simply not going to put up with, and when I find them I’m going to challenge them in every arena I’m in. I don’t care whether it’s the streets, the school, sports, wherever. I’m going to challenge this madness because otherwise, why am I here?”
Sandra Boze Edwards says when her father, a musician and teacher, first met Edwards in the summer of 1969, he had a single request: “ ‘Harry,’ he said, ‘I understand what you’re trying to do. I respect it. I ask you one thing: Do not get my daughter killed.’ ”
After they got married in August 1970, Boze was also clear with Edwards — with all his high-profile lectures, protests and activism — that he had to protect the family and keep them out of the headlines.
Edwards kept his promises to them both. He had seen how racism had ground out his parents’ dignity and hopes for the future. That early hardship made him fierce about family. It was one more piece of his activism: In a racist society, raising sane, righteous black children is a revolutionary act. The two have been married for 48 years and have three adult children: a psychiatrist, a lawyer and a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) teacher.
Boze Edwards, 70, a former teacher, assistant principal, assistant superintendent and adjunct professor who became a court-appointed advocate for children in foster care, was one of three children raised in a politically aware middle-class family in Los Angeles. She arrived at San Jose State in 1967, and a friend introduced her to “Big Harry,” who’d just come back from Cornell and was teaching classes. That fall, when word spread that football players were being housed in a highway motel because they couldn’t stay on campus, Edwards began organizing, “and I was just ready,” Boze Edwards says.
“One of the things that will always stand out till the day I die was watching TV in that little studio apartment in San Jose with Harry — and Tommie and John raising their firsts,” Boze Edwards says. Edwards had been warned he’d be in danger if he attended the Mexico City Games. He and Boze Edwards didn’t know if or how the protest was going to come together. “And then to see that was just so beautiful.”
Edwards had seen violence and death in The Bottoms of East St. Louis and spent the ’60s watching people he knew and believed in slain: King, Malcolm X, Bobby Kennedy. He was a Black Panther. He was followed by the FBI, which listed him on its Agitator Index used to track people considered to be a national security threat. (He obtained his 3,000-sheet file through the Freedom of Information Act.) He thought it likely his number would come up.
Then he had a family and thought, “You know, I’ve actually got to survive because it’s not just me. I’ve got all these people depending on me.”
Boze Edwards, a two-time cancer survivor, says she and Edwards align politically and are temperamental opposites in a way that makes them sync. Sitting in a restaurant in Fremont, California, where the Edwardses have lived in the same house for five decades, she is, like her husband, looking back and looking forward. “Maybe because I had my career and he had his career and we were able to maintain our separate identities without getting hung up,” Boze Edwards says. “I’m sure I’m his softer side.” But she had a distinguished career, which included doing human resources in a large school district, so “I’m known to hold my ground.” And Edwards, she says, has the ability to come back around after he’s thought about things and admit if he’s wrong.
There’s no special key, Boze Edwards says. “The difference is those who stay together, stay together, and those who don’t, don’t. Everyone has the same issues,” says Boze Edwards.
Edwards recalls that after Boze Edwards had breast cancer and a mastectomy, she told him, “I guess I’m not the girl that you married. And I said, ‘Well, lady, first of all, I’m a leg and a– man myself.’ ” The nurse put him out because they were laughing so hard she was afraid Boze Edwards would damage her stitches.
Edwards, too, feels the ravages of time. He’s unsentimental about it. It’s part of the deal on this planet, Edwards says, so you’d better get over it and get on with it.
“Everybody that we know in our age group is battling something, and if they tell you they’re not, they’re lying,” he says. He knows people younger than him with walkers or battling dementia.
“Every hit that I ever took in sports done come back and hit me again. It’s to the point that if something falls on the floor, if I go down to pick it up, I’ve gotta stay down there and say is there anything else I want to pick up while I’m down here, because I’m not gonna get down here again today.”
The lion in winter understands the season he’s in.
It’s a breezy day at San Jose State University, and Edwards and a university official are scouting the site for an elaborate commemorative bench to honor the work of the women involved in the Olympic Project for Human Rights. It’s next to the 23-foot statue of Smith and Carlos rising up in the center of campus, big like the moment it memorialized. It was erected in 2005, after the times had come around and the sprinters’ nonviolent protest had been recontextualized (same as with Muhammad Ali) as righteous.
The bench will sit south of the statue, next to the lecture hall where Edwards taught and organized 50 years ago. The Smith/Carlos statue features the sprinters wearing their OPHR pins as they raise their fists. The bench will also feature an inscription from Edwards.
The lead-up to the 50th anniversary of Mexico City has been full of awards, honors and commemorations. The campus is hosting a 130-item exhibition of memorabilia, including books autographed to Edwards, like the one signed to his wife by James Baldwin or “For Harry, Marty,” from Martin Luther King Jr. And the photo of him standing next to Malcolm X. They appear the same size, but only, Edwards points out, because Malcolm X, who was nearly 6 feet, 4 inches tall, stood on a step above Edwards. There’s the newspaper article about a photo of Smith and Carlos smuggled onto Robben Island, heartening Nelson Mandela. Edwards added a paragraph of text in beautiful handwriting with his own thoughts about Mandela’s reaction.
The San Jose State Institute for the Study of Sport, Society and Social Change launched last year and will house the FBI files, books, posters, jackets, buttons, letters and primary documents of Edwards’ decades of activism. It will feature research and programming on the significance of the movement and, Edwards hopes, be an incubator for the kind of change that he has always worked for.
“In another 10 years I will likely be on the other side of the lawn, and we have to push the struggle,” Edwards says. If you put a face to it, at some point that face is gone, but the need for struggle endures. “There are no final victories,” says Edwards.
“Walking with him, you have to slow him down,” says Earl A. Smith Sr., team pastor for the 49ers and the Golden State Warriors, who has known Edwards for decades. “He can no longer keep the pace of what he used to do, but he wants to keep the pace. He thinks that’s his relevance, but his relevance has already been established. … He transcended a whole lot, but sometimes when you move so fast, you don’t take time to really grasp what you’re driven by.”
There comes a point in the conversation at San Jose State when the location of the bench is decided, the inscription is finalized and there is no more thought work to be done about how the memorial will be interpreted. “I guess you’ll be needing a check from me,” Edwards says. He is funding the $25,000 project himself because that way he doesn’t have to wait on anybody to give him anything. A lesson he learned in East St. Louis, where they say only the strong survive.
He is already planning lectures on the coming battles, perhaps on female athletes and threats to reproductive rights, perhaps more about football players and President Donald Trump. But they will look forward, even as he’s commemorating the past.
The lion in winter still has reasons to fight.