Remembering the Martin Luther King Jr. International Freedom Games

January 12, 2021
Josh Schneider
Rostrum Plaque, Martin Luther King Jr. International Freedom Games

Foreground: Rostrum plaque from the Martin Luther King Jr. International Freedom Games hosted by Stanford University, Stanford University Objects Collection (SC1048), Special Collections & University Archives, Stanford University. The plaque was recently acquired by the Stanford Archives.

At a University convocation held in Memorial Auditorium on April 8, 1968, four days after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and less than a year after he had delivered his "The Other America" speech in the same room, 70 members of the Black Student Union (BSU) took the stage and the microphone from then-Provost Richard Lyman and an all-white male panel, and read off a list of 10 demands for better support for Black students and faculty at Stanford, and the broader community, including East Palo Alto, a predominately Black community near the university. The Administration agreed to nine out of ten demands, including the founding of the Black Student Volunteer Center (precursor of the Black Community Services Center), with a focus on community service and outreach programs to East Palo Alto; and the founding of the first program in African and Afro-American Studies (later the Program in African and African American Studies) at a private institution in the United States, headed by St. Clair Drake.

The "Taking of the Mic" is often seen an inflection point in the rise and effectiveness of student activism at Stanford -- especially by and for BIPOC students and other historically marginalized community members. More information about the immediate impact and longer term effects of this event can be found in the recently published Black Students at Stanford LibGuide, created by Mario Pamplona, Operations Manager for Library Privileges, as well as in the Activism@Stanford exhibit, recently updated by Dinah Handel, Digitization Services Manager.

The following year, 2,900 miles away, the first Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. International Freedom Games were held at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. They were organized by Bert Lancaster, President of the Philadelphia Pioneers Track Club, who had been approached by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference earlier in the year due to his groundbreaking work as the first Black coach to organize and promote a national championship meet: the 1969 AAU Track and Field Championships. The 1969 MLK Jr. Games attracted a crowd of 14,000, and were the first track meet televised in their entirety on national television. All proceeds from the MLK Jr. Games benefited the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the civil rights organization founded in 1957 by Martin Luther King, Jr., Bayard Rustin, Ralph Abernathy, Fred Shuttlesworth, and others, to better coordinate civil rights protest activities across the South. The first Games brought in thousands of star athletes, such as Robert Beamon, who set a world record in the long jump at the Mexico City Olympics the prior year, where he broke the existing record by a margin of 21 23 in.

Program from first Martin Luther King Jr. International Freedom Games, 1969
Program of the first Martin Luther King Jr. International Freedom Games, 1969. Courtesy Villanova University Archives. More complete records of the Games can be found in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference records, held by Emory University (https://findingaids.library.emory.edu/documents/sclc1083/series15/subseries15.5/).

Subsequent Games were held elsewhere in Pennsylvania, then at Duke, Oslo (1974 -- corresponding with the 10th anniversary of MLK Jr.'s receipt of the Novel Peace Prize) and Kingston, before returning to the United States: first Atlanta, then Philadelphia, and finally, Stanford, where it was hosted for several years in the early 1980s.

At Stanford, the Games were overseen by Brooks Johnson, Sprint Coach of the 1976 U.S. Olympic Team, and Stanford's first ever Black head coach. (An accomplished dramatic actor, Johnson also portrayed Paul Crump in the documentary film, The People vs. Paul Crump, by William Friedkin, who also directed The French Connection and The Exorcist). The 1980 Games attracted thousands of participants from around the world, as well as a crowd of over 15,000. Fourteen Stanford Stadium records were set during the 1980 Games, which was "widely regarded as the finest track meet at Stanford since the 1962 USA-USSR meet" (at least according to Bob Rose, the Games Publicist).

In addition to coverage in the The Stanford Daily, the Stanford Archives also includes programs and historical objects dating from Stanford's role as host for the Games.

Program from Martin Luther King Jr. International Freedom Games, 1980

Program of the eleventh Martin Luther King Jr. International Freedom Games, 1980, the first held at Stanford Stadium. This program was recently acquired by the Stanford Archives.

Program from Martin Luther King Jr. International Freedom Games, 1983

Program of the twelfth Martin Luther King Jr. International Freedom Games, 1981, also held at Stanford Stadium. Stanford University, Black Community Services Center, Records (SC0369), Special Collections & University Archives, Stanford University. Among the many advertisements for athletic shoes and light beer, the program includes an introduction by Stanford President Donald Kennedy, installed the previous year.

The Games were discontinued in the mid-1980s, largely because, according to Johnson's 1983 interview with the New York Times, the Games could no longer afford to bring in major athletes and ensure media coverage, as civil rights was no longer a ''vogue'' issue. Over their span, the Games served as the stage for several U.S. and world records. Beyond that, they served as a fundraiser to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and as a tribute to the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 

Of course, the rise and fall of the Games should also be understood in the context of the African American Civil Rights Movement, and the role that Black athletes have historically played to combat racial inequality. According to Harry Edwards, a Professor Emeritus in the Department of Sociology at University of California, Berkeley, who also organized a boycott for Black athletes of the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City to spur action on racial inequality (the Olympic Project for Human Rights), contemporary athlete-activists draw from a playbook inherited from MLK Jr., who in turn refined his civil rights strategies with lessons learned from athletes like Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali. 

“There’s a direct connection between the rise of Dr. King and athletes battling segregation and injustice in sport,” Edwards maintained in a 2018 interview with Toronto Star reporter Morgan Campbell. “Dr. King understood that there was not just a similar political interest, but an organic relationship between what he was trying to get done and what was happening (in sport) going all the way back to Jackie Robinson, and before. This is why he endorsed the OPHR and why he was critically important to us.” According to Edwards, King’s message informs the activism of contemporary athletes such as Colin Kaepernick and LeBron James, who are aware of their economic clout and willing to leverage it to fight racism.

Viewed through this lens, the development, history, and discontinuation of the Games would seem to be especially relevant today: after a national election in which Black communities were broadly targeted for disenfranchisement; on the heels of a recent Capitol insurrection tied to white supremacy groups, which called additional attention to the disparity in police response to the peaceful protests of the Black Lives Matter movement; and as Black community members continue to experience the life-threatening racial injustices, inequities, and deep structural divides of "The Other America" that MLK Jr. identified during his 1967 speech in Stanford’s Memorial Auditorium.

The Stanford University Archives collects, preserves, and provides access to content in any format that documents the history of the university, in support of teaching, learning, and research at Stanford and beyond. Please contact us if you would like to discuss sharing your materials with us, or if you have any questions about using the collections.

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