Ralph Boston a reminder to look beyond the familiar names of movements — Andscape
We tend to associate two names with the Olympic protests of 1968 – John Carlos and Tommie Smith. There were other “hidden figures” who participated in the Black Power salute on the medal stand, one of whom made strides in sport and social justice.
The death of Olympic gold medalist Ralph Boston, who died Sunday at the age of 83, elicits two types of mourning from me. There is the mourning that occurs when one leaves this earthly existence, and then there is another sense of mourning – an acknowledgement of the “Negro in history,” as historian Carter G. Woodson put it.
“We should not emphasize Negro history, but the Negro in history,” he once said. I mourn the frequency with which we learn of our heroes after they leave this earth, thinking of Woodson’s statement in terms of when we should give people their flowers. In that sense, it was fitting that Boston was from Laurel, Mississippi.
He set the national high school record in the 180-yard hurdles in 1956 and was a multiple-sport star at Oak Park High School, which also produced another icon – soprano opera singer Leontyne Price. He attended Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State College (now Tennessee State University, a historically Black university), where he won the NCAA championship in the long jump in 1960.
From there, he set his sights on Olympic gold, and showed no mercy to the record books. He broke track and field athlete Jesse Owens’ 25-year-old long jump record at an Olympic tuneup in August 1960 when he jumped 26 feet, 11 ¼ inches. A month later, he won Olympic gold in Rome.
He broke the 27-foot barrier in 1961 with a 27-foot-½-inch jump at the Modesto Relays in California. He bettered the world record in the long jump six times. During an eight-year run, he was the world’s No. 1 long jumper from 1960-1967, won a silver medal at the Tokyo Games in 1964 and a bronze medal at the Mexico City Games in 1968.
Boston protested by going barefoot on the medal stand in support of Smith and Carlos, who were suspended from the Mexico City Games and sent home in 1968. His action might have eluded me if not for the scholarship of Louis Moore, a professor of history at Grand Valley State University.
Moore’s Twitter thread included a picture of the barefoot Boston on the medal stand, along with other historical anecdotes. When I asked him about Boston, he described him as measured – meticulous in his approach to civil rights.
“Boston was an elite athlete during the 1960s, but was often overshadowed then, and even now, because he was not bold or boisterous,” Moore said. “But he was caring and calculating and navigated the sporting landscape as Black politics shifted from integration to Black Power.”
One of Moore’s anecdotes included a press clipping with a pointed quote from the Mississippi NAACP after Boston boycotted the opening of a segregated school. Then-Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett recognized Boston and Price in an act of “goodwill.”
“The best tribute Gov. Barnett could pay to Miss Price and Mr. Boston would be to make it possible for Negro citizens in Taylorsville, Miss., to register and vote as other American citizens,” the Mississippi NAACP wrote in a statement. “The propaganda being used in this ‘gesture of goodwill’ is as sheer as tissue paper, designed to placate the Negro with an inferior separate school system – it will not work.”
Boston’s stance on boycotts changed with the times – and as his time as a world-class competitor grew short. Moore outlined the complexity of Boston’s approach and how the champion best believed he could represent social uplift.
“He believed that sports gave Black athletes a way out, but also understood that sports gave Black Americans a way in,” Moore said. “He’d boycott an event if he had to, but also believed that competing with ‘USA’ across his chest could raise the consciousness of Americans about the plight of Black people in America.”
What happened in 1968 was the passing of the torch in many ways. Just as Owens was a friend and mentor to Boston in his pursuits of glory, Boston provided the same support for long jumper Bob Beamon – ironically enough, because of a boycott.
A number of Olympic athletes during the Mexico City Games had been radicalized after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Beamon was on the track team at UTEP just four months before the Olympics, but was kicked off the team after he and his Black teammates boycotted a meet at BYU due to the school’s segregationist policies. It is a reminder of how history repeats itself, as South Carolina women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley canceled her team’s series with BYU after a fan allegedly yelled racial slurs at a Duke volleyball player in August 2022.
When Beamon found himself without a coach, it was Boston who stepped up. During qualifying, as Boston posted a personal best, Beamon initially struggled due to nerves. Boston’s advice was to “move it back three feet,” which worked.
History happened in the final.
Beamon jumped so far that the measuring device in place was inadequate to measure the jump. An old-fashioned tape measure told the tale – Beamon had completed the first 29-foot long jump (29 feet, 2 ½ inches) in history. He was so overcome with emotion that he had a brief cataleptic seizure. The record stood for 23 years.
Boston retired after the Olympics in 1968, yet continued to blaze a trail in media and corporate endeavors. He was a sportscaster for ESPN and CBS, later becoming a general partner at WKXT-TV, the CBS affiliate TV station in Knoxville, Tennessee. He worked as a coordinator of minority affairs and assistant dean of students at the University of Tennessee. He was a consultant to the U.S. Olympic team and was inducted into six halls of fame.
At his HBCU alma mater, he received his flowers. Tennessee State named its annual spring individual track and field meet in honor of Boston in 1993, and the school’s wellness center also bears his name. Quite naturally, Boston shared his know-how with generations of Tigers. He worked as an assistant track coach during his days as an Olympian, and even coached the school’s current lead track official.
“Ralph was a giant of a man,” Tennessee State director of track and field Chandra Cheeseborough-Guice said in The Tennessean. “He was humble and just a special individual.”
Boston’s life is a reminder for those of us who love history to check the margins. We should be mindful to look beyond the familiar names of various movements. The more I have invested in books and pored over historical notes, the more I learned about what I don’t know. Always learning, learning always.
Former track and field athlete Carl Lewis, arguably one of the greatest Olympians, offered a guiding perspective in tribute to Boston. “I’m devastated about Ralph Boston’s passing. As a child I idolized him and he was a major influence in my life,” Lewis said in a tweet. “I’ll miss his voice and support. He changed the game as an athlete, advocate and mentor.
“Jumpers, Know his name!!!” Lewis implored.
We stand on the shoulders of giants, but some of those juggernauts have been obscured. We have been conditioned to fight against erasers and whitewashers of history, and in that struggle, we have lost focus on the fullness of our history.
I never met Ralph Boston, but I am grateful that he provided a gentle, yet urgent reminder of how we should engage in our pursuits: “Being the first to cross the finish line makes you a winner in only one phase of life. It’s what you do after you cross the line that really counts.”