Rafer Johnson: His Life. His Impact. 1934-2020



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Rafer Lewis Johnson lived a life of service as impressive as it was impactful. 

On July 28, 1984, Johnson carried the Olympic torch up 99 Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum stairs. He put the lit torch to a cauldron and ignited not just a flame, but a legacy that has endured for more than three decades.

That moment remains etched in the minds of millions. But it’s the totality of Rafer Johnson’s life — of humility, loyalty, service and achievement — that is all worth remembering. How could a poor kid from segregated Hillsboro, Texas head west and become a university student body president; Olympic decathlon gold medalist; friend and advisor to a should-have-been President; and fundamental figure in a wildly successful civil rights movement that doubles as a can’t-miss athletic competition?

Johnson was the second African American student body president at UCLA, and the first African American man to serve as the flag bearer for the U.S. Olympic Team. An early and unwavering advocate, he is synonymous with the Special Olympics. His bond with the Kennedy political family is eternal: Johnson was on the Last Campaign, with Robert F. Kennedy, wrestling the gun from the hand of the murderer of his friend. And soon after, Johnson was collaborating with Eunice Kennedy Shriver to grow the Special Olympics.

The LA84 Foundation is fortunate to have considered Rafer Johnson, as well as his wife Betsy, and their children Jenny and Josh our friends. Johnson was a founding board member of the Foundation’s Board of Directors and during his tenure he was instrumental in the awarding of grants and the advent of programs that have impacted more than 3.5 million Southern California youth. Rafer Johnson. His Life. His Impact. tells the story of a true torchbearer — a humble and gifted Angeleno who spent his life leading by example. 

Objects from the exhibit can be viewed below.

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