Fifty years later, Spencer Haywood drives around Las Vegas and tells the story as if it were 1968 again. He’s in his car, but in his mind, he’s back on a bus riding into Mexico City with some of his U.S. Olympic teammates and peering out the window in shock.
“It was like, ‘Whoa, what is going on here?’ ” said Haywood, who was 19 at the time.
In the United States, it had already been a year of turbulence, social unrest and mayhem, including the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in April and Robert F. Kennedy in June. Despite the racial conflict roiling the nation, African Americans in sports were enjoying a banner year. Many of them also had a political awakening. But for all that happened in the first nine months of 1968, the Mexico City Games took the sports year to another level of triumph and polarity.
“It was a breakout time for the black athlete,” said Haywood, who went on to have a Hall of Fame basketball career after scoring 145 points during the Olympics to lead the United States to a gold medal, a scoring record that stood until Kevin Durant broke it in 2012.
It was the year when Arthur Ashe became the first black man to win a major tennis title, at the U.S. Open. It was the year when Boston Celtics player-coach Bill Russell, one of the most influential athlete activists ever, became the first black head coach of a major American pro team to win a championship. It was the year when St. Louis pitcher Bob Gibson compartmentalized his grief over the assassination of King — “the one man in my lifetime who had been able to capture the public’s attention about racial injustice” — and put together the most dominant pitching season in baseball history. It was the year when Detroit outfielder Willie Horton, who, in 1967, walked the Motor City streets wearing his uniform and trying to persuade rioters to stop the violence, helped lead the Tigers to a Game 7 World Series victory over Gibson’s Cardinals. That championship did a lot for the city’s post-riot healing.
It was also Muhammad Ali’s first full year in boxing exile for refusing induction into the Army during the Vietnam War. But in Mexico City, the drama reached a climax.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then named Lew Alcindor, boycotted the Olympics because of inequality at home. John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised black fists in protest on the medal stand and were ejected from the Games. Amid the upheaval, Bob Beamon set a long-jump world record that would last nearly 23 years. And on the last day in Mexico City, George Foreman won a gold medal heavyweight bout against Soviet boxer Ionas Chepulis dubbed the “Cold War clash.”
To celebrate, Foreman gripped a small American flag and ran around the ring. Some were offended, considering it a rebuke to Carlos and Smith. Others saw Foreman’s act as a welcome counterbalance to Carlos and Smith. Foreman just wanted to show that he was happy and American.
“It wasn’t that deep,” Haywood said of Foreman, whom he had befriended while they “ate up all the food every day” at the Olympic Village. “He was just proud. But that’s where we were in America. It was just a damn crazy year, you know what I’m saying?”
'A greater purpose'
In 1968, there was no better rivalry than Wilt Chamberlain vs. Bill Russell. They were the dominant figures of professional basketball, intimidating centers with dissimilar styles. Chamberlain was the freakish 7-footer with gaudy statistics and a reputation as a ladies’ man off the court. Russell was the cerebral winner who sacrificed numbers for team success and used his platform to challenge the nation to look at its racist behavior. There was great anticipation for April 5, when the basketball titans were scheduled to face off in Game 1 of the Eastern Division finals. And then King was slain on the eve of the series.
A heated debate began: Play the next day or delay out of respect? The owners of the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers were involved in the discussion, as well as top NBA officials and the mayors of both cities. As the parties argued about the right thing to do, Russell called his rival and realized that Chamberlain was as distraught as he was. Ultimately, it was decided that Game 1 in Philadelphia would go on as planned. The hope was that the Chamberlain-Russell rivalry would reduce the potential for rioting in Philadelphia and Boston.
“They wanted to keep people off the streets — or at least delay it,” said Wayne Embry, who was Russell’s backup center and became the NBA’s first African American general manager in 1972. “They thought the arena would be packed and people would be glued to the television. Of course, our immediate reaction was we didn’t want to play the game because we were stunned and in mourning and angry. But we understood we could serve a greater purpose, too.”
Game 2 of the series was postponed after President Lyndon B. Johnson called for that Sunday to be a day of national mourning. (Major League Baseball also delayed the start of its season.) Two days later, Chamberlain and Russell attended King’s funeral in Atlanta.
Throughout the nation, prominent black athletes — many of whom were part of the Negro Industrial and Economic Union co-founded by Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown — tried to help restore order.
“We had learned to persevere, and in Boston, Bill was a great leader for those times,” Embry said. “Among athletes, he was one of the few who was up front in the civil rights movement. He was very vocal. He helped us get through it, but we were also used to having to get through things.
“During that era, you had the civil rights movement, you had riots, you had the Vietnam War. You had the assassination of just about everybody famously fighting for black people: John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Kennedy, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X. I think, in those days, we learned the true meaning of perseverance. It was quite a time in our history.”
When the playoffs resumed, Russell and the Celtics fell behind Philadelphia, 3-1, but rallied to win in seven games and then captured the championship by beating the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals. In December, Russell was named Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year for his watershed coaching achievement. The next year, he led the Celtics to another championship, his 11th in 13 seasons, and retired.
At the beginning of Aram Goudsouzian’s book “Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution,” Russell explained matter-of-factly what he had established with the Celtics as a pioneering black NBA superstar.
“We see each other as men,” he said. “We judge a guy by his character.”
The boycott threat
Harry Edwards, a sociologist and activist, led the Olympic Project for Human Rights. He inspired the protest by Carlos and Smith. Long before Abdul-Jabbar made a final decision to boycott the Olympics, he attended an Edwards presentation on Thanksgiving Day in 1967, and the superstar center gave a passionate speech in which he said boycotting was the right thing to do to highlight racial injustice in the United States and apartheid overseas.
Edwards and the OPHR were deemed such a threat that International Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage enlisted the help of Jesse Owens, the hero of the 1936 Olympics, to speak to black athletes about not protesting.
“You’re going to be Olympic heroes, but you’re not going to get jobs if you protest,” Haywood remembers Owens telling athletes in the room.
The meeting turned tense. Carlos and Smith talked back to Owens, declaring, “We ain’t got no jobs right now.”
Then, on Oct. 16, 1968, the men acted on their emotions. Smith won the 200 meters. Carlos finished third. Australian Peter Norman was second. They decided to make their statement on the medal stand, with all three wearing OPHR badges. Smith and Carlos didn’t wear shoes, only black socks to symbolize black poverty. Smith donned a black scarf, and Carlos unzipped his tracksuit jacket to represent blue-collar workers and to show a necklace of beads to acknowledge those who had been murdered and lynched. When “The Star-Spangled Banner” played, Carlos and Smith provided the enduring image of the Olympics, raising their black-gloved fists — Carlos with his left hand, Smith with his right — and lowering their heads.
“People tried to make it a black thing,” Carlos said in an interview several years ago. “They called it a ‘Black Power salute.’ It wasn’t a black thing. It was for human rights.”
Carlos and Smith had made the world pay attention, but then came the repercussions. They were sent home, ostracized and left to live in limbo until history judged them more kindly for fighting against inequality. For 50 years, Edwards has applauded the bravery and used their example to make a point.
“You don’t have to have numbers,” Edwards said. “You have to have acts. You have to have activism. The image of John Carlos and Tommie Smith in Mexico City has been hailed, in many places, as the most iconic image of the 20th century. Its power doesn’t diminish with time.”
A radicalizing moment
Back then, Haywood didn’t dare to protest. He was a member of a family that picked cotton in Mississippi. He was a relatively obscure player until the Olympics. He didn’t want to take any stances until people knew him. But he was inspired.
Later, Haywood changed basketball by challenging the NBA’s age requirement and winning a Supreme Court decision in 1971. His legacy now includes influencing a revolution.
“The Olympics gave me my sea legs,” he said. “Just talking about it, I’m kind of getting choked up. I was in the middle of a movement, and it just changed my life. I wasn’t going to ruffle any feathers while I was there, because I had too much on the line in trying to bring back gold. I couldn’t mess that up. My mother was still in Mississippi picking cotton. But when I came back, I was totally radical. A lot of consciousness was going on at that time, and it emboldened me to fight for what I deserved the rest of my life.”
Today, the sports world is amid another wave of activism. Even with 1968 as an example of the importance of athletes standing up for causes, the current on-field sports protests are unpopular and have been banned by the NFL. Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has not been employed by the NFL since he used the 2016 season to take a knee during the national anthem. To protest police brutality, he led a peaceful rebellion that has overtaken the NFL, and now Kaepernick is the most polarizing figure in American sports.
Away from the game, he has received numerous accolades for his activism. In April, Amnesty International honored him with its Ambassador of Conscience Award. But his NFL career is probably over. “How can you stand for the national anthem of a nation that preaches and propagates, ‘freedom and justice for all,’ that is so unjust to so many people living there?” Kaepernick asked during the award ceremony in Amsterdam.
Edwards is pleased, but not complacent, that well-known athletes including LeBron James and Richard Sherman are back in the social-justice arena. He wants them to be relentless and fight with purpose. To him, that is the best way to honor the legacy of 1968 and all of sports’ socially aware predecessors.
“I’ve never assumed that our freedom and options were not threatened,” he said. “Struggle does not move linearly. We’re still fighting for desegregation of the power positions in sports, even though when you turn on a football game between Clemson and Alabama, it looks like Ghana playing Nigeria. My position, based on study and experience, is that the challenges are diverse, dynamic and ever changing. They’re multifaceted and perpetual. The struggle is ongoing.
“We are merely standing on the shoulders of those giants, and it allows us to see farther and reach higher, be bolder. But the oppressor sees every victory by the oppressed as the final concession. The oppressed must see it simply as the next step. We must learn to dream with our eyes open.”