The Olympic Project for Human Rights, 50 Years Later

I’ve had the opportunity to write for a number of universities over the years, but what makes San Jose State University stand out is its legacy of social justice. I’ve been privileged enough to devote my last few months to interviewing a number of alumni who were involved in the civil rights movement at SJSU 50 years ago. I pursued each of these stories because I believe now, more than ever, it is critical to elevate voices of American change, especially those who have benefited communities of color, first-generation college students and the women and men who go on to inspire future generations of change-makers.

 L-R: Sandra Edwards, Gayle Boze Knowles, Rochelle Duff Davis, and Mary Noel at SJSU. Courtesy: Sandra Edwards.

L-R: Sandra Edwards, Gayle Boze Knowles, Rochelle Duff Davis, and Mary Noel at SJSU. Courtesy: Sandra Edwards.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Mexico City Olympics, in which Spartan athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their gloved fists on the medal stand in a civil rights salute. As members of SJSU’s Olympic Project for Human Rights, spearheaded by Harry Edwards and Ken Noel, their lives and stories have been well documented over the past five decades. This made me wonder: what about the women of the OPHR? Who were they and how did they contribute? What did they go on to do?

While pursuing this story, I had the pleasure and honor of learning from Sandra Edwards, Mary Noel and Gayle Boze Knowles, three alumnae who volunteered with the movement. Together with their friend Rochelle Duff Davis, they distributed OPHR material at track events, managed correspondence and helped spread word of the movement on campus and beyond. All four of them went on to become teachers, principals and educators. Coincidence? I think not. Learn more about these amazing women at Washington Square.

 Photo: Brandon Chew.

Photo: Brandon Chew.

I spent a few months researching the history of SJSU’s Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), which was one of the first such programs in the state. I am grateful to S.T. Saffold, Debra Griffith, Judge Robert Rigsby, Erika Cortes, Gabriel Reyes, Humberto Garza, Teresa de la Cruz, and countless others for sharing their experiences with me. You can read all about the history and future of SJSU’s EOP on Washington Square.

 Mary and Ken Noel. Photo: David Schmitz.

Mary and Ken Noel. Photo: David Schmitz.

In early June I had the opportunity to spend a few hours with Mary and Ken Noel, educators and activists who devoted their years at San Jose State to recruiting and supporting first-generation black college students. Ken co-founded the United Black Students for Action with Harry Edwards, and later the Olympic Project for Human Rights. Mary became a teacher, principal and school board member, and to this day the couple remains dedicated to supporting education. I was compelled to write both a profile on Mary and a story on Ken.

San Jose State will be recognizing the 50th anniversary of the famous Mexico City salute with a special town hall sponsored by the Institute for the Study of Sport, Society and Social Change. Harry Edwards, Tommie Smith, and John Carlos will be joined by Wyomia Tyus, as well as two of the Olympic rowers who supported the OPHR at Mexico City, Nate Boyer, the Green Beret who has supported Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest, and a number of journalists and academics. I’m grateful to work at a university that supports a productive conversation around civil rights, and even more excited that I’ve gotten the chance to learn from a number of these people firsthand.