Olympic gold medalist and human rights activist Lee Evans dies at 74

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US athlete Lee Evans (C) going through finish line during race at Summer Olympics.  (Photo by Bill Eppridge/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)
Lee Evans' 400-meter world record stood for nearly 20 years. (Photo by Bill Eppridge/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

Lee Evans, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and human rights activist, died Wednesday, U.S. Track and Field announced. He was 74.

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A Fresno, Calif. native, Evans starred in track at San Jose State alongside future Olympic teammate Tommie Smith, winning the NCAA championship in 1968. He set multiple world records in the run-up to the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, but saved his best performance for the sports' biggest stage.

Evans' mark of 43.86 seconds in the 400-meter dash shattered his own world record of 44.06 seconds, and stood as the record for nearly 20 years: 

The medal ceremony for the race was impactful as well, as the all-African American podium of Evans, Larry James and Ron Freeman donned black berets in a nod to the Black Panther Party.

Evans' activism dated back to San Jose State, where he and Smith were among the leaders of the Olympic Project for Human Rights. After calling for a boycott of the Olympics, the OPHR's badges could be seen on the jackets of Smith and John Carlos as they famously made a Black Power salute during the medal ceremony of the 200-meter race.

Evans' own protest was largely overshadowed by Smith's and Carlos' salute, but his influence as an activist athlete was considerable.

From SJSU:

According to Dr. Harry Edwards, the founder of the Olympic Project for Human Rights and San José State graduate, "Lee Evans was one of the greatest athletes and social justice advocates in an era that produced a generation of such courageous, committed, and contributing athlete-activists.

"He was an originating founder and advocate of the Olympic Project for Human Rights and what evolved in the late 1960's into an all-out revolt among Black athletes over issues of injustice and inequality both within and beyond the sports arena. In no small measure, today's athletes can stand taller, see farther and more clearly, and reach higher in pursuit of achievement and change in both sport and society because they stand on the shoulders of GIANTS such as Lee Evans."

Evans reportedly received death threats from the NRA and Ku Klux Klan during his time in Mexico City, but never stopped speaking out. A Fulbright Scholar in sociology, Evans received the Nelson Mandela Award for humanitarianism in 1983.

After his track career, SJSU said Evans spent much of his life in Africa as a track and field coach, leading the national teams of Qatar, Cameroon and Nigeria. He was also said to be involved in the Madagascar Project, which aimed to provide water and power, create economic self-sufficiency through agriculture and improve access to medical care.

Evans was inducted into the Olympic Hall of Fame in 1989 and the U.S.A. Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1993.

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