Lee Evans, who wore a black beret and lifted his fist in protest at the podium during the 1968 Olympics, has died at a hospital in Nigeria. He was 74.
The Washington Post and USA Track and Field report that prior to his passing on May 19, Evans suffered a stroke and his family intended to transport him to the United States in order to receive treatment.
During the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, Evans won the gold medal in the 400m after he became the first person to finish in under 44 seconds. His win came after his teammates, John Carlos and Tommie Smith, raised their fists at the podium and were sent home. Evans was warned against doing the same, and instead of heeding this warning, he demonstrated his support for the burgeoning Black Power Movement by rocking a black beret and putting his fist in the air anyway.
Aside from being an accomplished sprinter—he also won the gold medal in 1968 with the 4×400 relay team—the California native played an integral role in organizing the Olympic Project for Human Rights, which began as a means to draw attention to the housing inequities that Black students faced at San Jose State University, but evolved into addressing racial inequality in sports and other areas and industries throughout the world.
Prior to the 1968 Summer Olympics, Black athletes mulled boycotting the games, but after realizing that their involvement would send a much bigger message, they opted instead to participate.
“Winning was related to what was important to me,” Evans would later explain. “Black pride and the cause of social justice.”
After competing in the Olympics, he later became a track coach in Nigeria and Saudi Arabia and was elected to the United States National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1983.
Upon learning of his passing, many took to social media to express their gratitude for his commitment to both social justice and Olympic competition.
“Lee Evans has passed at 74,” tweeted the Nation sports editor Dave Zirin. “Now think about how young he was 53 years ago when he took the medal stand in a black beret and challenged racism at the Olympics.... right after setting a world record. Olympic athletes today considering protest in Tokyo stand on a legacy of courage.”
“I feel I won this gold medal for the Black people in the USA,” Evans once told the Post. “And Black people all over the world.”
He did more than that. He inspired future generations of Black folks to not only chase their dreams but be unapologetic in their Black identity while doing so.
Rest in power, Lee.