Eugene Weekly : Viewpoint : 11.5.09

Black athletes, presidents face racial hurdles
by Mark Harris

May you live long enough for those who revile and disrespect you to honor you.

Once upon a time, a young black girl ran in a dress at an all-comers meet at Hayward Field. She caught the attention of a Canadian white woman sports psychologist who was married to a black collegiate track star. The track star’s coach didn’t really approve of interracial marriages, and he particularly didn’t like young black high school girls with the ability to beat every male athlete on his track team except for the black male track star, even when they had a head start. You see, Margaret Johnson Bailes was so fast, no girls could give her any competition for training. 

Harry Jerome was the only real competition Margaret had in the state. So when Wendy Jerome, Margaret’s coach, bade her race Bill Bowerman’s track team, freshmen to varsity, and gave them all a head start, Margaret beat all of them except for Harry Jerome. In the interest of fair play and in respect for her athleticism, Bowerman could have welcomed Bailes to train for the Olympics at Hayward. But “uppity” black girls coached by uppity white women in interracial relationships were not welcome in Track City then. Later, she was all but forgotten except by those in the Black community who knew, loved and remembered her. 

Yea, verily, when the Olympic Trials came to Eugene, the only Olympic gold medalist from Eugene was initially left off the VIP invitation list. I was told, “Well, it’s a male dominated distance running town; it’s easy to forget women sprinters.” I get it. Pre-this, Pre-that — black female gold medal Olympians running in Adidas must be easily forgotten amidst the Nike hype. Even Harry Jerome just gets a weight room named after him in soon to be demolished Mac Court, though he was among the first to wear the nascent Nikes.

So there were multiple ironies present when Bailes, bedecked in Nike sweats, had a track financed in part by Nike dedicated to her, amid pomp and dignitaries. 

Savor this moment, I told her; you have lived long enough for those who dissed you to honor you. 

And then Obama got the Nobel Peace prize. A prize only eight black men have ever received — three of them African-American, one of those a fellow Harvard graduate. Like Olympic gold medals, an international honor, this prize was bestowed more for potential than actual achievement — though to be sure, only a brilliant mulatto raised by his white relatives, a Harvard-trained constitutional scholar, could actually inspire enough support to become the first African-American president of traditionally racist America.

Many Americans revile Obama as they reviled Martin Luther King Jr., but the world respects him. Perhaps, like Ralph Bunche who negotiated the armistice between the Arab states and Israel in 1949 and was awarded the Peace Prize in 1950, Obama will use his prize as a standard for even greater accomplishments. Certainly, like Margaret Johnson Bailes, he has lots of obstacles and hurdles placed before him. Consider them as Olympic training, Barack.

Mark Harris is an instructor and substance abuse prevention coordinator at LCC.