Three trailblazers came together Saturday night at a swanky fundraiser for the athletic program at Cal State L.A.:
Billie Jean King, Tommie Smith and John Carlos.
The university’s young students might not know their stories, but they are reaping the benefits of their legacies.
King, 70, is a legend not just for her record on the tennis court — where she won 20 Wimbledon titles and 39 Grand Slam victories — but for her decades of public agitation about gender equality.
She campaigned for equal prize money for male and female players, helped launch the first professional women’s tennis tour and pushed for federal legislation that has fueled a 40-year boom in women’s sports.
Smith and Carlos are Olympic icons, best known for a singular moment that was less about winning a race than about taking a stand against racial discrimination.
Both men medaled in the 200 meters at the 1968 games; Smith won the gold and Carlos won the bronze. Then, as they stood on the victory stand and our national anthem was played, each man bowed his head and thrust a black-gloved fist in the air to protest racial discrimination in America.
What brought them together last weekend was a commitment to level the playing field for future generations.
King grew up in Long Beach playing tennis at public parks. She attended Cal State L.A. because — at $47 a semester— it was all her family could afford.
That price tag drew laughter Saturday night from the well-heeled crowd. But it wasn’t so funny in 1962 when King — who had already won a Wimbledon title — had to work two jobs to pay for college.
She left school without graduating, and doesn’t want other student athletes to have to make that choice. So for the last 17 years, Billie Jean King and Friends has been hosting fundraisers and providing scholarships. “Most of the kids here are first-generation college students,” she said. “When we help them, we help their entire family.”
Her group has raised more than $3 million to construct a campus sports complex, with tennis courts and a learning center for children in neighborhoods near the college, which is just east of downtown.
That’s a reflection of the university’s new focus on connecting students to the community. University President William A. Covino has added a community service course to graduation requirements to promote “an ethic of generosity,” he said.
King’s fundraiser this year honored Smith and Carlos for their activism and contribution to education. The night was a reminder to me of how important college — beyond the classroom — can be.
That was where King saw the fallout of gender inequities. The lowliest male players could get a scholarship, but one of the best young female players in the nation — that was King — had to skimp on meals.
It was where Carlos, 69, who had grown up in Harlem, found like-minded folks, ready to battle injustice. Where Smith, 70, who picked cotton until he was 18, realized the freedom that education could bring.
Both men attended San Jose State, where student activist Harry Edwards took them under his wing.
Smith, one of 12 kids, had grown up working the fields in Central California, harvesting cotton and grapes. His athletic talent drew attention from college recruiters across the country; he narrowed his choices to San Jose State and USC.
USC took him to Disneyland and set him up on a blind date with a pretty girl, he said. San Jose State flew him up for a visit; it was his first time on a plane.
What cinched the deal was a conversation he had with Edwards, who was about to graduate. “He told me ‘You’re coming here to get an education, not to run fast,’ ” Smith recalled. Smith wound up with a gold medal, a master’s degree and a three-decade career as a college professor.
“We weren’t just two black athletes, on the victory stand doing their thing,” he said. “We wanted to improve the living conditions for people who didn’t have a platform.… For people who didn’t understand that, we were considered villains.”
This Thursday, it will be 46 years since Smith and Carlos made their Olympic stand.
It was a bold move, against a backdrop of national turmoil. Robert F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated that year. Angry urban ghettos were burning and college campuses were roiled by protests against the Vietnam War.
But the image, relayed around the world, was considered a national scandal. The two athletes were immediately and broadly denounced and expelled from the Olympic Village. The Los Angeles Times called their gesture a “Nazi-like salute.” The Chicago Tribune labeled the act “an embarrassment visited upon the country.”
They were accused of disrespecting their country and their flag; booed from the stands, pelted later with death threats and racial slurs.
But what provoked outrage and fear in some inspired pride in others. And that pride has endured.
“Every day, in some way, shape or form, it’s directed back into my life,” said Carlos, who spent most of his career as a high school track coach and counselor in Palm Springs. Strangers routinely stop him on the street to ask about those moments. “I’m still getting emails for autographs and pictures, around the clock,” he said.
More important than the celebrity, he said, is the impact that photo made.
“I hear from people who say ‘This picture here pushed a lot of us through school. We went to law school on the weight of what you’ve done.’ When people come back years later and say you had that effect on their lives, that’s the reward.”
I would be one of those people.
To me in 1968 — as a junior high student just coming to grips with what it meant to be black — what they did was brave and beautiful to behold. I hung their photo in my room then; now I have a poster-size print on the wall of my Times’ office.
That image reminds me of the fearlessness that righteousness requires.