In 1968, the United States was in the middle of a racial crisis during one of the most tumultuous years in American history. On April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, leading to nationwide protests, rioting and millions of dollars in damage. Over 100 cities, including Washington, D.C., Chicago, Baltimore and Kansas City, were up in flames. There were over 40 deaths, 3,000 injuries and upwards of 20,000 Americans arrested. “In 1968, our country was at a rift. Blacks weren’t liking whites and whites weren’t liking blacks,” Loretta Claiborne said, opening her story of racial injustice. “I would always ask my mom, “why are you so worried?”
Claiborne was born on August 14, 1953, in York, Pennsylvania. Born partially blind, with an intellectual disability and clubbed feet, she was unable to walk until she was four years old and didn’t talk until she was five. Doctors tried to encourage her mother, Rita, to institutionalize her, but she refused and chose to raise Loretta at home with her seven other children as a single mother.
Rita was born in 1931 and lived during a time when the country was greatly segregated. Blacks and whites were forced to use separate bathrooms. Every Black person in America had reasons to be worried, but she had more reason to be concerned. Not only did she have to fight for inclusion because of her skin color, but she also had to fight for inclusion based on her daughter’s abilities.
“She kept me home,” Claiborne said. “We lived in the housing projects, and she made me go out and play with everybody. I had to fight my own battles. It was tough.”
Having to fight her way through life with no shortcuts was just the lesson that allowed Claiborne to embrace the vision Eunice Kennedy Shriver set in stone in 1968.
Inspired by her older sister Rosemary, who also had intellectual disabilities, Kennedy Shriver held the first Special Olympics competition in Chicago, Illinois on July 20, 1968. Today, Special Olympics is one of the most recognizable and respected charitable organizations in the world. But without Kennedy Shriver including Rosemary in activities and pressuring her brother, President John F. Kennedy, to include intellectual disabilities in his policy platforms, Special Olympics may have never been established.
It was also a remarkable time to have come up with the idea of Special Olympics.
“I was shocked when I first found out that it started in 1968. I mean, months earlier Chicago was on fire,” Claiborne said. “People weren’t liking each other. Not only was it a revolution for Blacks and Whites, but it was also a new revolution that was started by one woman.”
When Claiborne was 17, a school counselor suggested she participate in the newly-formed Special Olympics. She did, and in 1970, she won her first medal as a runner. Claiborne has competed in six Special Olympics World Games, winning a combined ten medals over a span of 22 years. Still today, she competes in a variety of sports throughout many disciplines. She has completed 26 marathons, finishing twice in the top 100 women in the Boston Marathon. She holds the world record for Special Olympics in the 5,000-meter run, with a time of 17 minutes. She has also earned a black belt in karate.
Claiborne always wanted to be seen as an athlete, not an athlete with an intellectual disability. All athletes struggle; all have good and bad days. But, they are still referred to as an athlete. “When I see Dominique Dawes or Simone Biles, you’ll say that’s Simone Biles, the athlete; you know what she does,” Claiborne said. “So why couldn’t it be that way for Loretta Claiborne, ‘the lady who plays tennis’ or ‘the athlete’?”
For many with intellectual disabilities, this is the type of treatment they experience. They are judged based on disability, not ability. They are pushed to the back or silenced. The same could be said about people of color. They are judged based on the color of their skin, and have historically been pushed to the back or silenced all together. Exclusion is not new for either group, and in some areas of the world, things are just as bad as they were 50 years ago.
Our nation is hungry for change and desperate for inclusion. The events that have taken place over the last month stem from people letting out decades of anger and frustration. The circumstances that led to the death of George Floyd could have been avoided.
Fifty-two years after the volatile events of 1968, we cannot let history repeat itself. We need to learn from what happened in 1968 and ensure change happens through peaceful means. Protests over the death of Floyd continue throughout the country in all 50 states and hundreds of cities. Since Floyd’s death on May 26, many people in many communities have taken a step toward ending racism and social injustice. Not just for Black men and women, but for everyone, so that in the future, events like what happened in Minneapolis don’t happen again. A successful way history can repeat itself is finding ways to channel negative energy into something positive, just like what Kennedy Shriver did in 1968.
“Eunice Kennedy Shriver fought for equal rights for people with intellectual disability; people think that Martin Luther King only fought for Black people,” Claiborne said. “He fought for people in general to have the same equal rights. The main thing was for him to fight for Black people, but he also fought for those who were poor and treated in the second class.”
The message is clear. It goes beyond just sports; Special Olympics has provided a beacon of hope to nations for change. In 2019, Special Olympics World Games were held in Abu Dhabi and Dubai – the first event of its kind in the Middle East. It was the largest humanitarian and multisport event in 2019, spreading the message of inclusion through sport to an area of the world many may not think of as the most inclusive.
During those Games, the Middle East saw its first female Special Olympics referee; it’s first Emirati figure skater to compete internationally and of the 7,500 athletes who competed, about 40 percent were female. In a part of the world where there are still strict limits on females, they created the first steps of change.
A few weeks ago, in Richmond, Virginia, protesters called for the removal of a statue of Confederate Army commander Robert E. Lee as an act of resistance against police brutality and racism, including “Black Lives Matter” and “Blood On Your Hands” in mostly red spray paint.
The killings of Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and many others have led to actions like this around the country and the world. In the sports world, individuals, teams and organizations are calling for and implementing change. NFL players posted a video asking the League to defend black rights and support freedom of protest. The University of Missouri athletes led a march to the Boone County Courthouse in Columbia, Missouri, taking a knee for 8 minutes and 46 seconds in honor of Floyd. US Soccer repealed a rule that banned kneeling during the National Anthem, to allow for freedom of expression. The University of Alabama, which does not have the best history, has begun taking down monuments and plaques, symbolizing the Confederate Army and its intensive slave history. NASCAR has also banned Confederate Flags at their events. And though many of these places are still generations away from real change, it is a step in the right direction. That’s what America needs.
Special Olympics athletes are doing the same. Claiborne was the first to give an official statement from Special Olympics on the events in the past month. Following her lead, statements have been made by other athletes, U.S. Youth ambassadors, and a Sargent Shriver International Global Messenger from Pakistan. Special Olympics Indiana held a Zoom call for athlete leaders around the state to discuss what’s happening around the country openly. Special Olympics Northern California did something similar and invited Claiborne to join. The step these Programs made by openly talking about the racial divide in our country sends a message about what everyone needs to be doing. For change to happen, it is necessary to have uncomfortable conversations.
Claiborne has led the charge for inclusion her entire life and will continue to fight for equal rights for all. Her fellow Special Olympics athletes have followed and are setting an example of what change looks like. Now, she calls upon all of us to join her.
“Go out there and do more, positively and peacefully,” Claiborne says to move forward. “Don’t tell me what you can’t do, show me what you can.”