In March 1964, in the middle of a congressional fight over civil rights, as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X looked on, as newly crowned heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali lambasted American racism in front of the U.N., “Marvelous” Mal Whitfield, the greatest middle distance runner of his generation, wrote one of the most important political statements in sports history.
In a letter to Ebony, Whitfield, gold medal champion of the 1948 and 1952 Olympic games, charged, “I advocate that every Negro athlete eligible to participate in the Olympic Games in Japan next August boycott the games if Negro Americans by that time have not been guaranteed full and equal rights.” What made Whitfield, one of the greatest athletes of his generation, a man who openly lived the Olympic creed of using sports and competition to bring people together, use sports to challenge American racism? Whitfield believed that if sports could bring nations together every four years, sports could help America reconcile with 400 years of racism. So he asked black athletes to take away their bodies from a society that didn’t value black bodies. This was bold. This was beautiful.
For 21 years—Whitfield was drafted into the segregated Army in 1943—Whitfield gave his body and his breath to his country, a country that didn’t value him. “It was when I entered the military that I began to realize there was such a thing as racial separatism,” Whitfield recalled. In Kentucky, Whitfield remembered, “there were German prisoners of war based at Fort Knox, and they were street sweepers, assigned to clean up the place. They were allowed into the white military PX, while black members of the American military could not go in.”
But still he gave to his country. In 1948 and 1952, he won gold medals for his country and let America celebrate his fast feats as proof of America’s racial democracy. The black press celebrated these victories. If the American Negro won medals for his country, they hoped, their country would certainly tear down the barriers of Jim Crow. But that would not be. And Whitfield knew it. He came back to a segregated America.
After the 1952 Olympics, Whitfield couldn’t even afford to travel back to his hometown of Los Angeles. Local citizens had to raise money for his return. But he still gave to his country. After he retired from track in 1956, he traveled the globe, mainly in Africa, teaching the newly freed nations the virtue of sports and competition. But while he was teaching them, the track master learned something too. America lied to her black citizens. White America celebrated him for his speed but hated him for his skin. “I was still loyal and dedicated to my country, but I was upset, because there had no been equality, even before and during my time of being a popular personality while waving the red, white, and blue flag around the world.”
In 1963, after he returned from Nigeria, he immediately headed to Washington, D.C. to participate in the March on Washington. “I felt I had to do this, because I had seen all these positive changes in the governments of Africa when they became independent. I expected similar progress here at home,” he said.
But that progress never came, so in 1964 he challenged black athletes to withhold their bodies from the American propaganda machine that professed democracy, but instead produced prejudice.
“I make this proposal for two reasons: First, it is time for American Negro athletes to join in the civil rights fight—a fight that is far from won, despite certain progress made during the past year. For the most part, Negro athletes have been conspicuous by their absence from the numerous civil rights battles around the country. Second, it is time for America to live up to its promises of Liberty, Equality and Justice for all, or be shown up to the world as a nation where the color of one’s skin takes precedence over the quality of one’s mind and character.”
In their beautiful obituary of the legendary runner this weekend, the New York Times omitted his letter in Ebony. Why? How could this be? In the middle of protests on campus against racial injustices, two weeks after the Missouri football team threatened a boycott, how could the New York Times forget Whitfield’s gift to the revolt of the black athlete? Was this a simple omission, or something else? They captured everything else and told a magnificent story of a boy raised as an orphan in Los Angeles, a man who flew bombing missions in Korea and trained for the Olympics at the same time, a Tuskegee Airman—of course they forgot to remind readers that he fought in Uncle Sam’s segregated Military in WWII—the first black man to win the Sullivan Award, an award given to the outstanding amateur athlete who demonstrated American democracy, he was the globe-trotting teacher in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement and Cold War who extolled the virtues of American democracy while teaching African, Asians, and Indians American values through track.
This is the perfect story of the perfect American: a black man who gave himself to his country. But this is unfair. It’s unfair to Whitfield’s legacy and unfair to black “amateur” athletes today, like Missouri football players, who are wrestling with their own dualities, the double consciousness of what it means to be a an African-American amateur athlete in an America that consistently asks them to give, but not critique. As African-Americans continue to battle for their civil rights, it is important to remember Whitfield’s call for equality and his challenge to black athletes. We can’t mute “Marvelous” Mal. We have to remember him for the races he won, and the race he fought for.