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From the “United States Olympic Book”

The pictures are the first two pages of photo profiles of Americans on the US Olympic squad, from the summary report of American performance at the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games. As you can see and likely understand, America at the time demographically was generally perceived to be white. But it was changing, as minority groups, be they black, latino or Asian for example, were growing in size. Consequently, their representation in American Olympic squads were also growing.

But this was 1964, and race relations were beginning to brew, and get attention. In fact, it was October 14, 1964, the fifth day of the Tokyo Olympics, when the powers that be in Norway awarded Dr. Martin Luther King Jr the Nobel Peace Prize.

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Note James Bregman’s head shot in the upper right-hand corner

In 1964, diversity and inclusion were not buzzwords in corporate America. They were in some ways an alien concept, something that you might only visualize if you happen to be passing through the United Nations when it was in session. But there was one shining example of that on Team USA in 1964 – the Judo team – represented by a Caucasian Jew (James Bregman), a person of Native American Indian descent (Ben Nighthorse Campbell), a Japanese-American (Paul Maruyama) and an African American (George Harris).

Judo is not a team sport. It is very much mano-a-mano, and while you learn from others, training can be done independently. In other words, in the case of the 1964 Team USA judo squad, their diverse make up did not necessarily contribute to their actual performance beyond the fact that they were all good friends, four of the few foreigners who ventured to the mecca of judo in Tokyo to live and train.

 

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L to R: George Harris, James  Bregman, Yoshihiro Uchida, Paul Maruyama, Ben Nighthorse Campbell

 

But for James Bregman, who won a bronze medal in the middleweight class at the 1964 Games, the “rainbow team” was an inspiration to him.

“I grew up in a black ghetto,” Bregman told me. “I was a Jewish kid with white skin who was picked on by black kids who were brutes. I actually experienced segregation. My father had a grocery store in Green Valley, Virginia, and we lived above it on the second floor. Behind our store was Drew Elementary School, only two blocks away. I could play basketball with the other kids there, but in the 1950s I couldn’t go to that school. Instead, they bussed me out to Fairlington Elementary School in a white neighborhood 30 minutes away.”

Bregman didn’t object to being bussed out – he said he really wasn’t conscious of the socio-economic context of race relations at that time. But he did know that he was beat up in his neighborhood. Very often the bullies would be black, but Bregman told me that he was brought up not to judge, that he should be respectful to everybody and that a few bad guys did not represent an entire group.

And yet, he was getting beat up nonetheless.

Bregman was a small boy, often sick, dealing with bronchitis and asthma as a child. His parents thought that keeping him active indoors would help, so he got lessons in baton twirling, tap dancing, gymnastics, acrobatics as a kid. But one day, his parents learned of a judo club in the officers’ athletic club at the Pentagon in Washington D. C. that also was open to the public. Bregman’s parents took him to the club and suddenly, he was hooked on judo. And the officer’s club was also eye opening, the closest he would come to being inside the United Nations.

Although the Officer’s Athletic Club was located in Virginia, it was not segregated since the Pentagon was the Federal Government’s military headquarters. You had black, whites, hispanics, Japanese, Chinese, people from embassies all over the world. The club membership was multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-religious. From the time I was 13 years old, those were the people I hung out with. Maybe it was subliminal, but it gave me an understanding that hatred based on these externalities was ridiculous.

In fact, what Bregman understood, as did his teammates on the US judo team, what brought them together was far more substantial than what set them apart. Harris, Campbell, Maruyama and Bregman had all trained together in Japan for 3 or 4 years, their tight friendship forged in the common experience of two-a-day training – relentless, punishing and exhausting training. According to Bregman, they were more interested in becoming waza-shi, or highly proficient in judo technique, than winning competitions.

Bregman felt that his team was the representation of an ideal America, a team built on merit and performance, not race or religion. “Being on the rainbow team had a tremendous impact on me personally. This team represented America, not the one I grew up in, but one I wanted to live in.”

Judoka James Bregman Part 1: To Be a Waza-shi

Judoka James Bregman Part 2: The Stoic Professionalism of Judo

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Wilma Rudolph and Richard Nixon in Nashville_1960

It’s an oft-told tale of Black Americans triumphing overseas – soldiers, athletes and musicians – only to come back home to a world of discrimination and second-class citizenship.

Wilma Rudolph broke the mold.

In the Rome Olympics in 1960, Rudolph won gold in the women’s 100 and 200-meter races, as well as the 4×100 relay, and arguably became the most popular athlete in the world due to her beauty and charm. (That’s saying a lot since Cassius Clay was also on the scene.)

Nearly a month after the end of the Rome Olympics, it was announced by officials of her hometown, Clarksville, Tennessee, that October 4 would be “Wilma Rudolph Day”, and that according to ESPN, Tennessee Governor Buford Ellington, was going to lead the celebration. Tennessee at the time was a segregated state, a place where authorities or owners could require the separation of races in the activities of daily life, like drinking from a water fountain, riding a bus, or eating at a restaurant. And Governor Ellington was a man elected on his support of continued racial segregation.

Rudolph understood the leverage she had at that moment, and said she would accept only if all activities related to Wilma Rudolph Day were racially integrated. It was an offer that no matter where you stood on the political and racial divide, you could not refuse. Rudolph was not to be denied, and so that day was the first time in Tennessee that blacks and whites would be allowed to mix socially.

I found this letter to the editor in the Milwaukee Journal from October 22, 1960, where one Virginia Williams of Wisconsin wrote in praise of Rudolph as the finest of role models for black Americans.

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JFK and Wilma in the Oval Office

Wilma Rudolph, the Negro girl from Clarksville, Tenn., who won three gold medals at the Olympics for her running, also won praise for her good looks and charming ways. This unassuming Negro girl, coming from a large family of average income, brought honor to her race and her country. She brought credit to her country as an ambassador of good will.

County Judge William Hudson spoke in Clarksville at an integrated banquet give for Wilma. With tears in his eyes he said: “If I can overcome my emotions, I’ll make you a speech. Wilma has competed with the world and brought home three medals. If you want to get good music out of a piano, you have to play both white and black keys.”

And in order for America to maintain her leadership in the world, she has to tap all of her resources, utilize all of them. Negroes need America and America needs them.

As one can imagine, race relations in America has improved, but it has been a bumpy road. A few years later, Sports Illustrated caught up with Rudolph on the eve of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and see how domestic life was treating her. While she was busy being a mom, she was also out on the occasional protest.

It was different in May of 1963, when Wilma took part in two demonstrations at Shoney’s, which is considered one of Clarkesville’s finest restaurants although it does not have much more to offer than hamburgers. She was turned away, together with the other Negroes. “I cannot believe it!: she said to a reporter. “Remember the reception they gave me in 1960?” A few months later Clarksville was integrated.  (Sports Illustrated, September 7, 1964)