At a dinner to be held in his honor this evening, Rafer Johnson will receive the UCLA Medal, UCLA’s highest honor, in recognition of his decades of leadership in the Special Olympics and unwavering efforts supporting equality for all.
The medal is presented to those of exceptionally distinguished academic and professional achievement whose work embodies UCLA’s highest ideals.
Johnson grew up in an impoverished Texas neighborhood marked by segregation and discrimination before he came to UCLA, became a two-time Olympic medalist, worked on Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign and helped found the Special Olympics.
“At the same time he was struggling to break down the racial barriers he faced, Rafer Johnson selflessly dedicated himself to helping others, specifically joining the fight by those with intellectual disabilities against the stigmatization they too often face,” said Chancellor Gene Block. “His commitment and untiring leadership to achieve equality and access for everyone is an inspiration to us all.”
Patrick McClenahan, president and CEO of the 2015 Special Olympics World Games, described Johnson as a “national treasure” when working with him during the 2015 games at UCLA. “Imagine the number of lives that Rafer Johnson has touched,” he said. “The perceptions he has changed towards people with intellectual disabilities has been remarkable.”
As a student, Johnson decided to attend UCLA in part because of the campus's history as a college for athletes of all races.
“It’s not just because of UCLA’s long history with athletes of color, like Jackie Robinson and Woody Strode,” Johnson said. “While I was touring campus, I saw pictures of the former class presidents, and one of them was a black student. I didn’t see anything like that at any other school. UCLA was a leader in that area, just as they also became leaders in supporting people with intellectual disabilities.”
Johnson became the link between the Special Olympics and UCLA. He was UCLA’s student body president when he first saw John F. Kennedy speak in the late 50s, and he became friends with the Kennedy family in the early 60s. He was one of the people Eunice Kennedy Shriver turned to for input about the Special Olympics.
“Being a person of color, it was very clear to me that sometimes decisions and opinions are falsely made about people based upon their color or position in life,” Johnson said.
Johnson medaled in the Olympic decathlon in 1956 (silver) while still a student, and after graduation returned to the Olympics in 1960 to win gold. In 1960, he was also captain of the American Olympic Team, and the first African American to carry the American flag in the opening ceremonies. In 1984, he lit the Olympic flame as the final torchbearer opening the Los Angeles Olympic Games.
Johnson graduated from UCLA in 1959 with a B.S. in physical education, having served as class president, lettered in two sports, won his first Olympic medal and met Bobby Kennedy. By 1968, Johnson was working on Kennedy’s campaign. On the night his friend was killed, he was among the witnesses who apprehended Kennedy’s assassin. Distraught, Johnson said he soon turned his energy to the Special Olympics as a way to honor his friend’s legacy.
“In my collegiate career, people helped me all the way,” he said. “I wanted to give back and help others, because no one can be their best unless someone helps them.”
His family’s Bruin connections run deep. His wife, Betsy, earned her B.A. in education at UCLA. Both his daughter, Jennifer, and son, Joshua, earned UCLA degrees and competed in sports while students — Jennifer played volleyball and Josh was on the men’s track and field team.
The UCLA Medal was established in 1979 and is the highest honor bestowed upon an individual by UCLA. It is awarded to those who have not only earned academic and professional acclaim, but whose works demonstrates the highest ideals of UCLA. Past recipients of the UCLA Medal include several Nobel laureates, Toni Morrison, President Bill Clinton, basketball coach John Wooden, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, and UCLA alumna and astronaut Anna Lee Fisher.
Rafer Johnson interviewed in 2015.
Updated May 18, 2016