By Jordan Latimore | OBSERVER Correspondent
The California Hawaii State Conference NAACP honored four civil rights activists with Hall of Fame legacy awards June 24 at the Grand Sheraton Sacramento hotel.
The honorees included historic figures – 1968 Olympic gold medalist Dr. Tommie Smith, bronze medalist Dr. John Carlos, and 1967 Olympic Project for Human Rights co-organizers Dr. Harry Edwards and Dr. Kenneth Noel.
As Black community icons, the four recipients of the NAACP Honor Legacy Award all made their marks in the civil rights movement in their unwavering activism and sacrifice, especially by using the platform of sports and athletics to do so.
While all the icons showed extreme gratitude and thankfulness for the recognition of their actions, the recipients in attendance – Dr. Smith had a prior engagement – used their platform to do what they always have: fight for the Black community.
In a press conference before the ceremony featuring the honorees, they thanked the NAACP before addressing more current concerns.
“We have to understand that what happened in 1968 was the continuation of an ongoing struggle that goes back 157 years from the current time,” Edwards said regarding the perspective of the 1960s civil rights movement. “It’s not individuals or individual personalities or leaders that generate struggle, it’s conditions. Those conditions, so deeply rooted within the context of the American experience, continue to prevail today.”
Such societal conditions, which the other honorees alluded to at the press conference, affect such things as hiring practices within professional sports, the importance of Title IX within women’s collegiate athletics, and key issues within the Black community such as voter suppression.
“If a college won’t give a young woman a scholarship because she may not be around, then what about the pro team that signs her to a moneyed contract? That too becomes now challenged,” Edwards said. “We have to understand also that sports are merely the canary in the mine shaft.”
Using the platform of sports to spark social change is a dynamic that Saturday’s honored activists know intimately; it’s a concept they pioneered.
The iconic image of Smith and Carlos posing with one fist in the air demonstrating against systemic racism during the medal ceremony for the 200 meters at the 1968 Olympics still reigns supreme in the eyes of many. But there was a third person in the famous photo – Peter Norman, a good man in the eyes of Carlos, who says Norman was as much a leader on civil rights issues as he and others were.
The International Olympic Committee banned Carlos and Smith for their actions. Norman didn’t need to take a stance or join the fight, but he did. Representing his acclaimed organization “Olympic Project for Human Rights,” with a patch on his left side, Norman also was met with ridicule and sanction when arriving home in Australia.
For his solidarity, Norman paid a price, and all the honorees feel that should never be forgotten no matter what he looked like.
“Peter Norman was a man’s man, he was an independent thinker,” Carlos said. “He had a concern about the people, he had a concern about Black America. I like the fact that Peter chose to stand for what was right. It’s not about Peter being white, it’s about him being right.”
Edwards drew comparisons to Smith and Carlos’ actions to the modern-day athlete’s protests, specifically referencing Colin Kaepernick and LeBron James in how they use their platforms to promote racial justice. Though the times may be different, Edwards said similar battles continue to be fought in the modern fight for social change.
“Bill Russell and Elgin Baylor were not Chuck Cooper and Earl Lloyd; Muhammad Ali was not Joe Lewis,” Edwards said.
While the conversation shifted to the power of professional athletes’ platform, the panel several times addressed how the modern person can navigate the current social climate of pro sports.
“As sport becomes more and more important in our society over the years, with more and more money and resources being put into it, our youth are capitalizing on that,” Noel said. “As they grow, they need to participate just as we do.”
Another big topic of discussion for the honorees was the impact of Supreme Court decisions on minorities in the United States.
“What happened in Roe v. Wade is an existential threat to women’s sports in this country,” Edwards said. “Not just at the collegiate level, but at the professional level.”
Noel said during his recipient speech that this was the first major award he had ever received for his actions in the civil rights movement. Though this was his first award in this sense of social justice, Noel and the other icons in attendance know the fight is far from over.
“The one thing that history teaches us if nothing else, is that there are no final victories,” Edwards said. “We thought that the quest to free women from reproductive bondage was won, but here we are today in literally a life and death struggle over women’s rights to medical services.”
Edwards added that the issues of the 1960s are still alive and well.
“We thought that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was a final statement,” he said. “But here we are today fighting voter suppression, especially in communities of color.”
With the press conference concluded and the ceremony set to commence, the angst of the honest and raw conversation just 30 minutes before the dinner instantly washed off the faces of the honorees. The focus had shifted from complex societal issues to recognizing their monumental solutions and sacrifice. A large crowd of family and friends laughed, smiled, greeted each other and gathered to make sure their icons were shown the love and appreciation they had earned.