Lee Evans, the Olympic runner who was the among a group of Black athletes to raise their fists in protest of racism in the United States at the 1968 Summer Olympics, died May 19 at age 74 in a hospital in Nigeria after suffering a stroke, the San Jose Mercury News reports.
During the Mexico City games, controversy ensued when fellow sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith, gold and bronze medalists in the 200 meter race, stood on the winners platform and held their fists up in Black power salutes with bowed heads, while Australian Peter Norman stood with them. Carlos and Smith were eventually expelled from the Olympic games.
Two days after their protest, with Carlos’ encouragement, Evans broke two world records, one in the 400 meters, running 43.86 seconds and another while anchor of the 1,600 meter relay team which finished at 2 minutes, 56.16 seconds. The records stood for 20 years and 24 years, respectively.
On the winner’s platform, Evans stood with silver medalist Larry Evans and Ron Freeman, also Black runners, to receive their medals. Each of them wore Black Panther-style berets and raised their fists, continuing Carlos and Smith’s protest. However, when the national anthem was played, they lowered their fists and removed their berets. The gesture may have spared them the penalty from the International Olympic Committee given to Carlos and Smith.
“I feel I won this gold medal for Black people in the United States and Black people all over the world,” Evans said later at a press conference, according to The New York Times. The 1,600 meter relay team did not demonstrate after winning their medals.
“Lee Evans was one of the greatest athletes and social justice advocates in an era that produced a generation of such courageous, committed, and contributing athlete-activists,” Harry Edwards, who was with Evans on the Olympic Project for Human Rights, told the Associated Press.
Evans continued his track and field career, winning the 400 meter races at the U.S. national championships in 1969 and 1972, the Times says. He made the 1,600 meter relay for the 1972 Olympics in Munich, but the United States could not put a team together because two athletes were suspended for participating in a different protest at the Mexico City games.
After his running days were over, Evans continued to coach track in the United States, Africa and the Middle East. Beginning as head cross country and assistant track coach at San Jose State University, and eventually moving on to direct the national programs in Saudi Arabia and Nigeria, according to USA Track and Field.
Evans was inducted into the U.S. National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1983 and the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 1989. Ultimately, he coached programs in 20 different countries and joined the coaching staff at the University of Washington in 2002. He also served as head coach at the University of South Alabama until 2008, afterward returning to Nigeria where he continued to coach high school track and field.
Photo: Bill Eppridge/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images