In honor of the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington, this is first of few articles on Dr. Martin Luther King’s sports-related influence. As the video above shows, Dr. King was involved in the planning for the Olympic Project for Human Rights in 1968 which was established and organized by Dr. Harry Edwards. The following priceless passages from “The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment That Changed the World” provide a more intimate understanding of Dr. King’s role in the 1968 Olympic protest and his greater understanding of sports as a critical tool in changing society.

John Carlos on his surprise meeting with Dr. King:

The movement [Olympic Project for Human Rights] had gained steam because in February 1968 the president of the IOC, Avery Brundage, the man who delivered the 1936 Olympics to Hitler’s Germany, readmitted apartheid South Africa to the Olympic community—as if that racist state had somehow reformed. It gave us focus, energy, and a very clear demand to put on the table: if South Africa was in, we were out [1]. … I was thrilled when the telephone rang in my mother’s apartment, and it was [OPHR Organizer and Chairman] Harry Edwards extending an invite.

Other than Harry Edwards, I had no idea who would be there or why. When I walked in, I was immediately shocked to see some of the social-movement political giants that I had seen on television—Andrew Young for one, and Ralph Abernathy, the number two man of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)… But not in my wildest imagination was I ready for the next individual to walk into the room:

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

On Dr. King’s Leadership

Dr. King made it clear from the beginning that he wasn’t just there to lend moral support. He wanted to help us hammer out a plan and he made it clear that he would be a public supporter of the Olympic boycott. He also stated that while we had his public support, he wouldn’t and couldn’t be the lead man at the front of the march and in front of the cameras. He said that it would do the movement no favors. He wanted Harry Edwards to be the lead man, and said he would be very happy taking marching orders from Harry on this.

Dr. King felt the boycott was a very worthy project and could prove to be a mighty platform to make clear the need to establish justice and equality for all men and women on this planet. He said that our strongest leverage was that an Olympic boycott could have a global reach. We could shock the world and we could do it by also adhering to the principles of nonviolence that he held so dear. We could bring attention to the problems of society, but we did not have to throw a rock or burn a building in order to do so.

This was Dr. King’s methodology. He understood that militancy didn’t mean violence. He understood that courage did not mean throwing punches. Sometimes it meant just the opposite. He also told us that if we wanted to go down and hold a demonstration during the Olympics in Mexico City, he would join us and bring the civil rights marches people knew from Selma and Montgomery right to the Mexican capital. I still remember him saying that he would get to work on that right after he saw through this garbage strike he was working on supporting in Memphis, Tennessee.

On Why Olympic Project for Human Rights was attractive to Dr. King:

He expressed to me that the concept and visual power of an Olympic boycott would be like a ripple in the water spreading throughout the world  to let people know that the people of color of this earth were very disenchanted about their treatment and we could aspire to something better as a human race. He said that the visual power was in the void it would create: an Olympics without black athletes. He said that the process would be like black soldiers stepping back from the military. 

On Dr. King Having His Life Threatened:

My second question to Dr. King was… “Why are you going back to Memphis when they are threatening your life?” Remember, Dr. King had been back and forth to Memphis where he was supporting a sanitation strike that had gotten so violent it became an article of faith that Dr. King had been marked for death. We all knew it. We knew that if someone had a clear shot at this great man, the trigger would be squeezed. He was addressing not just racism at home but also standing up against the war in Vietnam. He was just becoming too dangerous to too many people.

At that moment, Dr. King made a very positive statement directly to me. He said, “John, I have to go back and stand for those that won’t stand for themselves, and I have to go back for those that can’t stand for themselves.” The way he said it was very distinct and very precise. Once again, he said he had to “stand for those who won’t stand for themselves, and stand for those who can’t stand for themselves.” Won’t and can’t: he had enough room in his heart for both.

On Dr. King’s Impact on the Summer of 1968:

When Dr. King said that, it made my life more certain. Maybe this is just the way I remember it more than forty years later, but that moment gave me a direction. Until then I was kind of a rebel without a cause, like Brando when they said, “What are you rebelling against?” and he replied, “What have you got?” I never had any kind of a game plan or formula for what I was going to do in my life. I didn’t have a compass. I would improvise and speak out against injustice as I saw it arise. 

But when Dr. King said those words to me, it was like he joined my mind and my heart and guided them toward one direction. This is when I became a heart and soul member of what we called the Olympic Project for Human Rights.

Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, and two weeks later, the IOC reversed its decision to admit South Africa into the Olympics. This softened the boycott stance of John Carlos and many athletes who chose to protest their demands at the podium instead. King never did the raised fists of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, but his influence helped to guide them up.

To learn more check out of The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment That Changed the World

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