Throughout his 73 years (and counting), Dr. Harry Edwards has experienced both the joys of the American dream and the bitterness of the American nightmare.
His résumé reads like a New York Times bestseller. As a star athlete at East St. Louis High School, he dominated the opposition in football, basketball and track and field, where was listed on the All-State team as a discus thrower. He later set the national junior college record for the discus at Fresno City College.
(Photo Credit: sjsu.edu)
At San Jose State University, he continued to shine in the classroom while being a captain on the basketball team, posting the school record in the discus and wreaking havoc on the football field.
In 1964, he was on the draft board of the Minnesota Vikings, San Diego Chargers and Los Angeles Lakers. However, his talents weren’t limited to athletics. His brilliance as a scholar overshadowed the headlines Edwards generated in sports.
(Photo Credit: sjsu.edu)
As a result, he chose to bypass a possible pro sports career to pursue his graduate studies. Edwards was awarded the prestigious Woodrow Wilson Fellowship and a University Fellowship to attend Cornell University, where he received a master’s degree and Ph.D. in sociology.
Since then, he has masterfully blended a life of education, social awareness and sports. He was a member of the Black Panther Party, a consulting inmate counselor at the San Francisco County Jail at San Bruno and worked with inmate programs at San Quentin State Prison.
Dr. Edwards also served as a consultant on issues of diversity for Major League Baseball, the NBA and NFL. He was hired by MLB Commissioner Peter Ueberroth in 1987 to help with efforts to increase representation of minorities and women hired for executive positions.
He showcased his intellectual talents with the Golden State Warriors, specializing in player personnel recruitment and counseling. Dr. Edwards later served on staff with the San Francisco 49ers, earning four Super Bowl rings in the process while working in the area of player personnel counseling.
The programs and methods he developed for handling player personnel issues with the 49ers were adopted league-wide in 1992. One of his crowning achievements with San Francisco was the creation of the Minority Coaches Internship Program. He developed it alongside Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh to increase opportunities for minorities seeking a coaching career in the NFL.
Dr. Edwards has also provided commentary for countless television programs and documentaries, lectured in classrooms, debated naysayers who blatantly denied the injustices in America and authored four books, along with dozens of articles, to support his bold statements. He has since “retired” from teaching, serving now as Professor Emeritus of the Sociology Department at the University of California-Berkeley.
While he no longer stands before students on a weekly basis, Dr. Edwards still keeps a pulse on the contentious climate within the country. In an exclusive sit-down with The Shadow League, he freely shares his thought-provoking insight on these issues and offers deep solutions for the ills of society.
Take out a notebook. Class is now in session.
The Shadow League: What inspired you to lead a life of activism, awareness and education?
Dr. Harry Edwards: I grew up in East St. Louis, which already had a horrendous history of race relations going back to the 1917 race riots where white people killed over 300 blacks. The scars of that were still there when I was born in 1942. People that I grew up with talked about the 1917 race riots.
I was a child of the Emmitt Till era. I remember seeing that picture in Jet magazine. For the first time, it dawned on me that there were some things my father, as big and bad and strong as he was, could not save me from. Then having come of age in the 1960s with the emergence of the civil rights movement after the 1954 Supreme Court case of Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, I saw the fire hoses washing old folks and children down the streets like basketballs. I watched the dogs being sicked on school teachers, Pullman porters, maids, and people who were marching for what the Constitution said was their right to vote in places like Selma, Alabama.
In Mississippi, I watched them uncover the bodies of (Andrew) Goodman, (James) Chaney and (Mickey) Schwerner in the Freedom Summer in 1964. I watched the investigation of Medgar Evers’ murder and no one was convicted. Two-and-a-half weeks after the March on Washington, I watched where a church (16th Street Baptist Church) was bombed, killing four little girls in Birmingham, Alabama.
When I went to San Jose State, there were two black faculty members on campus. The athletic department never interviewed a black coaching candidate, much less had a black coach on the staff or any other capacity – not even as a secretary or janitor in the building. Those contradictions were right in my face every day.
At one level, any white guy would’ve been proud and seen my accomplishments as outstanding and me living the American dream. Holding national records, being on the draft board of three professional teams and a Woodrow Wilson Fellow and on his way to do Ph.D. work at Cornell. That’s the American dream.
On the other side, it’s what James Baldwin stated, ‘To be black and to be aware in America is to be in a constant state of rage.’ That contradiction and my efforts to deal with it on a personal level were a driving force of motivation in my life. This was from the time I saw that picture of Emmitt Till in Jet magazine. It gnawed away at me and motivated me down the path I’ve taken.
TSL: What are your thoughts on the Republican and Democratic National Conventions?
Dr. Edwards: Let me say one thing right out the chute so you know exactly where I’m coming from. Donald Trump couldn’t lead me out of a burning porta potty with the door off the hinges. I think this is indicative of a nation heading in a spiral toward a nervous breakdown.
We have arrived at a juncture in the wake of the tenure of Barack Obama where a certain segment of American society is struggling to come to grips with the idea that the era of white supremacy is coming to an end. You read the history of American society and you have this ridiculous notion that slavery was America’s original sin. I have never bought into that.
Slavery was a part of that dynamic that aroused white adventurers who came to these shores in the 15th and 16th centuries and reported back to Europe that they discovered America as there were people standing on the shore watching them get off the boat. When they looked upon aboriginal natives as simply part of the wildlife of a new land and then began to treat them in that fashion, white supremacy became embedded in the very root and foundation of American social/political culture.
Slavery was another dimension of that. White supremacy was what led Americans to continue to bring black people to this country in chains. They then wrote it into the Constitution that while all men are created equal, black people were three-fifths of a man. That is white supremacy. That white supremacy prevails to this day.
So when I look at the Republican National Convention and hear some of the speeches, I wonder, how do we bring this country together irrespective of who wins? If Trump wins, this country and maybe the world is in great danger. This is a man who has proposed the greatest ethnic cleansing policy in the history of the world. He wants to ban 1.2 billion Muslims from the country. He wants to deport nearly 12 million Latinos and he wants to create a state of martial law as far as the policing of the African-American and Latino communities.
On the other hand, Hillary is weighted with so much baggage. She comes from a political family. There’s always something there that someone can attach to and say, ‘I don’t trust her.’ People representing her presidential effort are running around the country, including Bill (Clinton), trying to justify the highest incarceration rate of any country on Earth.
Rather than saying - ‘Here’s what we intended to do when we put forth this incarceration enhancement proposal. The things that resulted in Draconian steps as far as the incarceration of African-Americans and Latinos in particular, that was not our intention. We intended to free up those communities from the crime rate.’ - they’re trying to justify this madness that resulted in the highest incarceration rate in the world, which devastated the black community.
All of that has to be cleaned up and I haven’t heard her address this. In the end, we’re going to have to figure out a way, with two absolutely flawed candidates, to pull this country back together and get out of this spiral toward a national nervous breakdown.
That is the challenge that we’re confronted with. Perhaps the Constitution provides us with the means. It says, ‘We the people in order to form a more perfect union.’ It doesn’t say, ‘we the governors or we the courts.’
It most certainly doesn’t say we the presidential candidates. We have a major struggle in front of us. If we can’t pull out of this spiral toward a national nervous breakdown, we are in for some dark days ahead.
TSL: What are your thoughts on the tragic deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile as well as the police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge?
Dr. Edwards: I think we have to end this madness. It’s not going to be a situation where we develop trust and then end this madness. We have to step up to the plate, despite the lack of requisite levels of trust and respect between police departments and our community, and end the madness.
We often talk about the conversations that black families and to a degree Latino families have to have with their sons and daughters in terms of potential contact or confrontations with police officers. On the other hand, I have friends who are police officers and their children have a conversation with them. ‘Be careful out there. Keep your head on a swivel.’ They have these conversations with their wives.
We have two groups that are having conversations largely out of a fear of each other. We have to understand the community and police are not natural adversaries, we’re partners. There’s no way the police can enforce the law without the complete cooperation of the community. You can’t deny there are straight out murderers and criminal elements in these communities. You can’t deny there are straight out bold racist cops on police forces. When you add those two factors into the legitimate concerns of the community and police, you have an explosive situation.
We have to begin to understand we have a partnership with police departments. There’s nothing to be gained by killing cops. That is the absolute epitome of an assault on us all because of this partnership. There’s nothing to be gained by police backing up rogue cops who shoot unarmed black men, women and children. There’s nothing to be gained by silence when we have a video of a man running away being shot in the back, a cop getting a Taser and laying it down next to him.
Don’t tell me not to believe my lying eyes because we don’t know what happened before the film was shot. That generates a distrust and disrespect for the police. There’s nothing to be gained by saying there was anything heroic or justified in shooting police officers in Dallas or Baton Rouge. This destroys and undermines the partnership.
We can’t wait until we have total trust and complete respect for each other to get this right. I love President Obama, but what he says from Washington, D.C. and the Oval Office doesn’t change things down here on the ground.
(Photo Credit: sjsu.edu)
TSL: Do you think there’ll be any social commentary or political acts on display by black athletes at this year’s Summer Olympics similar to what Tommie Smith and John Carlos did in 1968?
Dr. Edwards: I think if what we saw at the ESPYs, if what we saw with Maya Moore and the (Minnesota) Lynx did in terms of ‘Change Start With Us,’ I think if Carmelo’s (Anthony) call for athletes to step up and speak out is indicative of anything, it is likely to be some statement made on that international platform concerning this national nervous breakdown we’re spiraling toward and I applaud that.
I think there are other things athletes can do. LeBron James is worth tens of millions of dollars to Cleveland. If a LeBron James, a Steph Curry, a Carmelo Anthony, a Maya Moore, a Serena Williams, an Adrian Peterson, a Russell Wilson walked into the governor’s office and said we want a priority on bringing our police departments and minority communities together, you can’t tell me the governor would tell them to get lost.
We didn’t have that option in 1968. Athletes were coming home from the Olympics with gold medals and getting on the unemployment line. That has changed. These athletes are walking corporations. They have latitude and power that even high-profile lawyers or college professors like myself don’t have.
TSL: What advice would you give to black athletes on any level – high school, college or pro – in terms of using the field/court and their name as a platform for social awareness?
Dr. Edwards: The first thing I would tell any young athlete is to dream with your eyes open.
With sports, from the first time you enter the area, you’re on a biological clock. Your skills are going to develop over a period time, peak at a period of time and then begin to decline. You have to understand, for the majority of your life, if you’re lucky to be on this side of the lawn, you’ll be making a living doing something else.
The second thing I’d say is, anytime you want to speak out, do your homework. Otherwise, just sit down and shut up. As much as I like him, Charles Barkley, many times absolutely makes no sense. Freedom of speech is a universal right in this country. But the right doesn’t make it right. What makes the speaking right is - did you do your homework?
Far too often, we find people not specifically in political or analytical arenas, wind up speaking out based upon the verbiage and communication in their own little bubble, which is oftentimes slanted and uninformed if not outright ignorant and embarrassing.
(Photo Credit: Getty Images)
TSL: Saying Black Lives Matter is nothing new under the sun, it’s just been given a hashtag. What’s your thoughts on the movement and tips for improvement?
Dr. Edwards: America has evolved based on movements. America has broadened the democratic participation through efforts which initially began as movements. The Boston Tea Party was not a government program. The abolition movement, the labor movement of the 1930s, the women’s suffrage movement of the 1920s and 1930s, the civil rights movement, the environmental movement, the gay rights movement, all of these movements compelled society to deal with issues that otherwise would’ve been ignored or denied.
Movements have been critical to the evolution of America. Movements are critical in the effort to create and form that more perfect union. This goes all the way back to the beginnings of this society when Samuel Adams and his Sons of Liberty movement that threw 342 cases of tea in Boston Harbor.
Black Lives Matter is in that tradition. It is also the case that movements have typically been diversified in their leadership. That is to say, no central overpowering leadership or they have been leaderless.
What you have with Black Lives Matter is typical of the civil rights movement, which had a diversified leadership. You had Dr. King, Malcolm X, the Black Panther Party, Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, NAACP, National Urban League as well as the Congress of Racial Equality.
You have different leadership pockets that are involved in this and there’s no central agreed upon policy or philosophy. But they do know one thing. They want the madness to stop in terms of the vilification, criminalization and execution of black men, women and children.