Honoring “Black Champions” Interviewee Rafer Johnson (1934-2020)

Rafer Johnson, Olympic gold medalist, humanitarian, and actor, passed away on December 2, 2020. Johnson won the silver medal in the decathlon at the 1956 Olympics and came back to win the gold in 1960. After his athletic career was over, Johnson was instrumental in organizing and promoting the Special Olympics in the late 1960s.

Johnson in a still from “Black Champions.”

On August 13, 1985, the documentarian William Miles interviewed Johnson for the three-part TV program Black Champions, which was originally broadcast in 1986. In 2019, the Film & Media Archive completed an NHPRC grant-funded project to digitize and make available all of the full-length interviews from that series. The complete interview with Johnson can be viewed here.

If you have access to the Criterion Channel you can watch Johnson in The Grand Olympics (Romolo Marcellini, 1961), which documents the 1960 summer Olympics in Rome. In the film, Johnson carries the U.S. flag during the opening ceremonies. He’s also shown competing in and finally winning the gold medal for the decathlon.

Johnson’s other screen appearances include the James Bond film Licence to Kill (John Glen, 1989), in which he plays a DEA agent, and TV programs including The Six Million Dollar Man, Quincy M.E., Roots: The Next Generation, and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.

In the following excerpt from the Black Champions interview, Johnson reflects on the attitude he adopted in order to come back and win in the 1960 Olympics after losing in 1956. He describes what makes an athlete a champion.

Rest in power, Rafer Johnson.

For more information about Black Champions and the Film & Media Archive, contact Andy Uhrich, curator of Film and Media.


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