Museum News

Statement on the Passing of Decorated Olympian Rafer Johnson

December 4, 2020
Stephen Dunn/Allspo

Spencer Crew, interim director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, released the following statement today, Friday, Dec. 4, on the passing of decorated Olympic decathlete, actor and foundational Special Olympics supporter, Rafer Johnson:  

“It is with profound sadness that we at the National Museum of African American History and Culture mourn the death of Rafer Johnson, Olympic champion, humanitarian and a notable Hollywood entertainer, who was one of the most prominent African American athletes of his era. Johnson will be remembered for his efforts in establishing the Special Olympics and being the first African American to light the Olympic cauldron. We will forever revere the Los Angeles legend for his raw aptitude and dedication to a life of achievement.   

Torch carried by Rafer Johnson in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics

Torch carried by Rafer Johnson in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Rafer Johnson, © 1983 LAOOC – LA Olympic Organizing Committee

Born in the rural Texas town of Hillsboro, Rafer Lewis Johnson’s family moved to Kingsburg, California, to escape to a better life. Johnson referred to his family’s decision to leave Texas as one of the many factors contributing to his athletic success. He became a multi-sport athlete in high school, participating in football, baseball, basketball and track. His track and field coach, Murl Dodson, ignited Johnson’s passion for decathlon competition by introducing him to the achievements of Olympic gold medalist Bob Mathias.   

In 1954, he attended UCLA and began to distinguish himself as a top-tier Division I athlete. In his sophomore year at UCLA, Johnson won his first decathlon gold medal at the Mexico City Pan American Games. In 1956, despite being injured, Johnson clinched a silver medal at the Melbourne Olympic Games for his decathlon performance. However, it was not until the 1960 Rome Olympic Games that Johnson would claim athletic fame. Seen as the game’s decathlon favorite, Johnson was team U.S.A.’s captain and the first African American participant to carry the U.S. flag during the Olympic opening ceremonies. He valiantly endured all 10 decathlon events and edged his way to a memorable gold medal victory. As a result of his positive representation of American athletes, sportsman-like conduct and leadership, Johnson also received the 1960 James E. Sullivan Award. Soon after the 1960 Olympics, Johnson began involving himself with activism and politics, which led him to other avenues of celebrity.   

After repositioning himself from the track to the 1960s political landscape, Johnson started working as an ambassador for President John F. Kennedy’s Peace Corps. Through his contributions, Johnson fostered a close relationship with the Kennedy family and helped Sen. Robert F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign. Johnson regularly accompanied Kennedy during campaign engagements, and on June 5, 1968, after the announcement of Kennedy’s California Democratic Primary win, Johnson witnessed Kennedy’s assassination. After assailant Sirhan Sirhan shot Kennedy multiple times in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel, Johnson, along with former football star Roosevelt Grier and journalist George Plimpton, subdued the gunman until he was apprehended by authorities. Johnson honored his friend and colleague’s life by being a pallbearer at the senator’s funeral at Arlington National Cemetery.   

Johnson further substantiated himself as a monumental Olympic figure and American hero by organizing the first Special Olympics competition in 1968 as well as co-founding the California Special Olympics in 1969. His efforts to further the popularity and validity of California’s Special Olympics garnered him a position as the president of the organization’s board. Johnson held this position until elected as chairman of the board in 1992. His impact on Olympic history continued with an unforgettable moment during the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. Johnson acted as the final torchbearer of the Olympic Torch Relay and subsequently became the first African American to light the Olympic cauldron. Johnson donated the torch to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2016, and now the historical artifact can be respectfully observed for generations to come. 

Sports: Leveling the Playing Field gallery at the National Museum of African American History and Culture

"Sports: Leveling the Playing Field" gallery

NMAAHC

When not making history or championing overlooked communities, Johnson was a beacon for representation in the entertainment industry. He starred in several films, including an appearance as DEA agent Mullens in the James Bond film License to Kill. Although he became a successful actor, Johnson’s primary focus always remained on the sport he dearly loved. His achievements were recognized in his later years, including his induction into the California Hall of Fame in 2009 and UCLA Medal Award in 2016. Johnson’s strength of character has cemented him as an American icon whose colossal endeavors live on through moments of African American triumph.”   

About the National Museum of African American History and Culture  
Since opening Sept. 24, 2016, the National Museum of African American History and Culture has welcomed more than 7 million visitors. Occupying a prominent location next to the Washington Monument on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., the nearly 400,000-square-foot museum is the nation’s largest and most comprehensive cultural destination devoted exclusively to exploring, documenting and showcasing the African American story and its impact on American and world history. For more information about the museum, visit nmaahc.si.edu, follow @NMAAHC on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, or call Smithsonian information at (202) 633-1000. 

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Media Contact(s): 

Jason Spear (202) 633-9904; spearj@si.edu 
Melissa Wood(703) 732-5700; woodm2@si.edu  

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