50 years ago, Duke University hosted the experimental Pan-Africa – U.S.A. International Track Meet, looking to change a legacy of structural racism.
One year before Ethiopian Miruts Yifter won an Olympic bronze medal in Munich, Germany, and five years before he won two golds in Moscow, he miscounted laps in a race held in Durham, North Carolina. As a result, American distance running icon, Steve Prefontaine, took the title at the Pan-Africa – U.S.A. International Track Meet in front of 52,000 fans. Yifter irritated his competitors, shifting between positions throughout the race, before mistakenly using his final gear in the penultimate lap. He would soon earn the moniker “Yifter the Shifter” for his ability to change speeds so rapidly in races.
After the race, a frustrated Yifter explained that he was accustomed to hearing bells, not a gun, to signal the final lap, and did not see the lap counter. Jean Claude Ganga, a Congolese sports administrator and the selected African team manager for this particular competition, explained further, “‘In some countries, it’s a gong, gong, in others, it’s a bing, bing, bing. Here it’s a boom. He did not know this.”
This would be one of several moments of cultural reckoning 50 years ago, when athletes from across the continent were invited to North Carolina to compete at the Wallace Wade Stadium at Duke University on July 16-17, 1971.
As sport is positioned to do, the Pan-Africa – U.S.A. International Track Meet was meant to disseminate ideas and feelings of cultural cohesion. But for many, using the Pan-African namesake to advertise the event just a few short years after Black students occupied a central Duke Administration building to make demands in response to the racism they felt at the newly integrated University, and with several African countries still under colonial rule, cohesion seemed like an obvious ruse.
At the competition, Pan-Africanism had two opposing connotations. For some — namely the organizers and most spectators — it simply described the structure of the meet. Athletes from across the African continent competed as one team against athletes from the U.S. For others, most notably the Black activists who attended the meet to publicize racial oppression omnipresent in the South, Pan-Africanism was an ideology focused on uniting all people of African descent within and beyond the continent. It was, and is, an anti-imperialist and anti-racist way of organizing politics in the world. And it changed how some understood the different teams on the track and in the field.
“We decided to create this huge scoreboard and the idea was any time any Black person won points whether they were from Africa or the United States we gave those points to Africa,” civil rights activist, academic, and education reform leader, Howard Fuller, told FanSided.
Fuller, along with other students and members of the Malcolm X Liberation University (MXLU) that he helped found knew they would need to take advantage of the large staging of such an event to make a statement and espouse the values of Pan-Africanism. The University was created mostly in response to the discrimination Black students faced in Duke’s early years of integration, and the structural racism felt in Durham and beyond.
“When we learned about the track meet the first thing we did was we met the people from Africa when they got off the plane,” Fuller explains. “We had made up these packets telling them about the oppression of Black people in Durham and North Carolina. And then with the score card we brought drums to the meet and were drumming the whole time. So we turned an athletic event into a political event.”
Pre-meet dynamics around Duke University
The meet was the brainchild of Dr. LeRoy T. Walker, the head coach of North Carolina Central University (NCCU), a historically black university founded in the early 20th century. Walker coached dozens of Olympians before and after his time at NCCU, and critically forged a close relationship with Duke’s Cross Country and Track and Field Coach, Al Buehler, in order to find adequate facilities for his athletes.
One of Walker’s athletes, Lee Calhoun, only had access to five hurdles and a poorly maintained track that could easily turn an ankle. Calhoun, who went on to win Olympic Gold Medal in the 110-meter hurdles at the 1956 and 1960 Olympic Games, as well as other several would-be Olympians, would soon be snuck into Duke’s segregated campus to practice in safer conditions.
Buehler and Walker’s unique relationship may have been virtuous for track and field athletes both at NCCU and Duke, but the ease with which many of the athletes could share practice facilities contrasted starkly with the realities on the ground at Duke and in Durham.
Duke University accepted its first five Black students on to campus in 1963, but as Theodore Segal points out in Point of Reckoning: The Fight for Racial Justice at Duke University, the school was still deeply enmeshed in plantation dynamics. Manual laborers on campus and custodial staff were mostly Black, and even the newly minted Black undergraduates could not move about freely on campus.
Fraternities and sororities prohibited Black students from joining. The sports stadiums had segregated seating and “Dixie” — the de facto national anthem of the confederacy — was often played before sporting events while the Confederate flag was proudly flown. Off campus, the important Hope Valley Country Club, where university events were often held, had strict segregationist policies.
Claudius B. Claiborne arrived at Duke in 1965 as a top basketball recruit. As the university’s first Black basketball player, he would come to be an integral part in building Duke’s iconic sporting legacy. As a freshman, he earned an athletic “letter” (a prestigious athletic award), but because the award ceremony was held at the Hope Valley Country Club, he could not attend the banquet.
Feeling so alienated and discriminated against on campus meant that the few Black students registered at Duke sought comfort and sociality off-campus. Many, including Claiborne, became involved with Operation Breakthrough — an antipoverty program and affiliate of the North Carolina Fund — that was under the direction of Howard Fuller.
Fuller was a staunch political activist and good friend of Stokely Carmichael, who he brought to speak on campus in 1967. In addition to talking about the Black power movement more generally, both expressed the importance of education. “I do not believe that the educational system in this country is perpetrated to help Black people,” Carmichael said, in front of several Black Duke students. Inspired by his words, several students decided to form the Duke Afro-American Society (AAS).
When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in the spring of 1968, the AAS believed it to be imperative to demand an implementation to counter the palpable racism on campus. Students ultimately decided to march to Duke President, Douglas Knight’s home, to hand him a list of demands. The activists asked Knight to allow nonacademic employees at the university to collectively bargain; to establish a minimum pay of $1.60 per hour (the national minimum wage); to sign on to an advertisement recognizing national institutional racism in a local paper, and to resign from the racist Hope Valley Country Club.
Over the next year, demands were met with hollow concessions which ultimately led to the famous Allen Building takeover on February 13, 1969. The AAS presented new demands in addition to unmet previous ones and held a banner declaring themselves the Malcolm X Liberation School.
Though attempted negotiations continued, the eventual fallout resulted in the formation of MXLU — an experimental educational institution. As Howard Fuller explains in his memoir, No Struggle, No Progress: A Warrior’s Life from Black Power to Education Reform, MXLU was meant to be a new vision of education steeped in Pan-Africanist ideology and practice.
Fuller took on the title of “Mwalimu” — meaning teacher in Swahili — and helped to develop a Black-centered curriculum. The program was directed at creating adept students to eventually go to Africa and help countries in their battles for independence. They took classes in African history, African language, and a range of scientific and engineering-oriented disciplines central to building a new nation.
By the time the Pan-African-U.S.A. Track Meet was organized and announced, MXLU had moved to Greensboro in order to expand their operations, but the students returned to Durham to raise awareness about racial issues in the south. Importantly, the most politically charged Olympic Games had occurred just a few years earlier in 1968. There, John Carlos and Tommie Smith famously raised fists over their heads on the podium to protest racism in the United States.
In addition to highlighting the ways sports and politics so effectively intertwined, the 1968 Mexico City Olympics marked Africa as an incubator for athletic talent. Winning most of the events in the long-distance road races, Ethiopia and Kenya, in particular, were seen as new threats in global sport, despite their victories being, “regarded with suspicion because the winners were accustomed to competition at high altitudes.”
Although Yifter miscounted laps, he returned the following day to beat Frank Shorter in the 10,000 meters. Kipchoge Keino, who won the men’s 1500-meter race in Mexico City, dominated the event in Durham as well. There were several other notable African victories. Ugandan John Akii-Bua won the 400-meter hurdles, an event he would again win at the 1972 Olympics. Kenyans Robert Ouko and Ben Jipcho also won the 800-meter and 3,000-meter steeplechase, respectively.
Despite the fact that according to the main scoreboard the U.S. men won 111-78, with the Pan-African style scoring MXLU students were tabulating, their red, black, and green scoreboard listed the totals as “Africa” coming away with the victory over “White” 185-183.
As the Sports Illustrated reporter noted at the time, “there were loud voices saying that 10 African track meets cannot cure the problems lingering in Durham — and most cities.”
The presence of Black activists at the event certainly served a purpose, then. In addition to the reading materials they provided to African athletes and officials, some citizens and Black athletes took a few of the African athletes to tour poorer neighborhoods in Durham, outside the confines of Duke. Ivory Crockett, for instance, noted that when the African athletes tell their friends and family what they witnessed upon their homeward returns, “‘No one will believe them. They will be surprised to her that we aren’t all living in brick houses and have nice cars.’”
It is difficult to know what many of the African athletes truly thought about what they witnessed and were introduced to in Durham. They, as Fuller remembered, were mostly kept on a short leash, but seemed to acknowledge what was happening. “Some of the athletes recognized what we were doing — waved at us — but we didn’t have a lot of significant contact with athletes either from Africa or the U.S.” Fuller explained.
Although many of the African athletes may not have been steeped in the same Pan-Africanist literature that MXLU students were, they had lived through decolonization movements around the continent. As there were in the U.S. in 1968, major student movements protesting the Ethiopian monarchy were underway in the late 1960s leading to a revolution in the early part of the next decade. Malcolm X even came to Addis Ababa to speak of global racial oppression shortly before he died.
Debates about South Africa’s participation in the 1968 Games also ushered in ideas about racism and solidarity on the continent. When the IOC was going to initially allow South Africa to compete in Mexico City, Ethiopia and Algeria announced they would boycott. Other countries under the Supreme Council of Sport in Africa, like Uganda, Kenya, Zambia, indicated later they would bow out as well. Thus, while it is unclear if there were conversations happening between African-American and African athletes, the underlying tenets of Pan-Africanism were present in certain iterations.
NCCU’s Walker and Duke’s Buehler justifiably received great praise for putting on such an innovative competition. In the coming decades, sportswriters noted how the sheer amount of spectators and interest in the meet was unprecedented in the sport of track and field. With over 50,000 in-person spectators, and many others tuning in over radio and television, track and field has seldom captured so much attention from American sports fans since then.
That said, to misremember the event as one of total cultural cohesion is a disservice to the athletes competing, the people tied to Duke — where the event was held –, and people facing racial oppression in Durham, the U.S. south, and around the country.
While Walker and Buehler may have been seen as innovative in the sports world, the pioneers of MXLU and those leading anti-racist efforts in the south were also exploring uncharted waters in education reform and more equitable politics.
MXLU suffered economically in the years to come. The radical education they sought to provide was met with skepticism and distrust, and they struggled to garner enough funds to provide the affordable and/or free education they were providing. In 1973, the doors to MXLU officially shut.
But the central tenets of the Pan-African movement have never completely waned. In fact, the upcoming Olympics in Tokyo continue to demonstrate that sports, despite the desires of many officials and decision-makers, are always political.
Moreover, various attempts to exclude Black athletes, particularly Black women, from participation in the Olympics, makes a historical appreciation of Pan-African ideas and movements all the more prescient.
U.S. Track star Sha’Carri Richardson was recently suspended for smoking weed after finding out her biological mother died. Athlete activist, Gwen Berry, who served a suspension after protesting at the 2019 Pan-Am Games, was chided for turning her back to the National Anthem at the U.S. Olympic Trials. Swimming caps for natural black hair are currently ruled out of the Olympic Games. And more African women have been deemed ineligible to compete because of regulations for “female classification,” excluding several top middle-distance runners from the continent from competing.
This all comes just as the IOC released guidelines for “athlete expression” — AKA protest — at the upcoming Olympics.
If the Pan-Africa-U.S.A. International Track Meet from 50 years ago has anything to teach us, it’s that holding the tension of what sport attempts to mask, through its execution, in tension has a lot of value. Appreciating how broader social movements intersect, and often collide, with sporting policy and events, can tell us a lot about how the world really operates and how certain individuals and institutions try to obfuscate those operations. Sometimes looking at a different scoreboard, as it turns out, can tell a different story.