I was saddened to learn about the recent death of track great Lee Evans, who I saw run many times. Besides being one of the greatest 400 meter runners of all time, Lee was a humanitarian, who cared about the people of the world.
Lee ran track at San Jose State with Tommie Smith and John Carlos. Along with them, he was a founder and organizer of the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) that advocated the boycott of the 1968 Olympics to protest the oppression of Black people in this country. The boycott did not happen, and all three ran in the Olympics. Smith and Carlos were thrown out of the Olympics after raising black-gloved fists on the 200 meter victory stand. Carlos advised Evans to stay and run his 400 meter race. This was a bit controversial, as some Black activists felt Evans should have left with Smith and Carlos. About that, Evans told sportswriter Dave Zirin, “I had a tough time because Black people thought that I didn’t do enough and the whites were just mad. I got it from both sides.” Evans won the Olympic 400 meter race in a world record time. On the victory stand, Evans raised a clenched fist and wore a black beret to signify his support for the Black Panther Party. He received death threats for his actions prior to and during the Olympics.
It was after his running career where Evans should be most remembered. He was a true humanitarian. He was a Director of Athletics for the Special Olympics International. His greatest desire was to work with athletes who did not have the opportunities that he had as a world-class runner, so he went to those countries that needed a track coach. He coached the national teams of Qatar, Cameroon, and Nigeria. In his interview with Zirin, he said, “As soon as I learned about what Jim Crow meant and I found out that my ancestors were Africans, I wanted to go back to Africa. So that’s what I did.”
Lee stayed in Nigeria and was coaching high school track when he died on May 19. During the 1980s, he worked on the Madagascar Project, which includes providing a fresh water supply, power, electricity, farming, and transportation for people in Africa. In 1991, he was a recipient of a Nelson Mandela Award given to those who “stood for the values of equality and friendship and respect of human rights, against apartheid and any form of racism.”