Revolution #140, August 17, 2008

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The ESPYs, the ’68 Olympics, and the Backlash

Sunday night, July 20, ESPN aired the 2008 ESPY awards program. The ESPYs are a popular, star-studded event celebrating some of the year’s outstanding performances in sports—mainly professional sports, but including a number of performances by college and some high school athletes. It brings top athletes in many different sports together with a number of celebrities for an entertaining, glitzy evening with a lot of humor thrown in. As we wrote in Revolution #136 (July 20, 2008), there was something special happening at this year’s ESPYs—Olympic Medal-winning sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who raised their black-gloved fists in the air on the victory stand at the 1968 Olympics as a symbolic statement against the oppression of Black people, were being presented with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award, given to athletes whose actions transcend sports.

The 15-minute segment of the ESPYs where Carlos and Smith were honored and the award was presented was the highlight of the evening, and many in attendance were deeply moved by it. It clearly touched a nerve—not just among those who remember and uphold the protests and rebellions against injustice and for liberation of that period, but many people there. And it gave a glimpse of the way in which people cherish those who take a stand for the people, no matter what the cost. The actor Samuel L. Jackson, one of the presenters of the award, said in his introduction, “1968 may be 40 years ago, but for many of us like me, a 19-year-old college student at the time, the events are so vivid, so personal, they could have occurred yesterday.” The other presenter, Steve Nash—point guard for the Phoenix Suns and twice named the NBA’s MVP (Most Valuable Player of the year)—said afterwards, “To be a part of this tonight is something I’ll never forget for the rest of my life.”

The centerpiece of the celebration was a nearly 8-minute video narrated by actor Tom Cruise. In a powerful and wrenching way, it showed a slice of the tumult of those times, and in particular the events of 1968 in the U.S. that were the backdrop and impetus for the Mexico City protests. New York Times reporter Robert Lipsyte says early in the film, “It’s hard to remember just how violent the ’60s were.” His comments were followed by one scene after another of vicious, racist brutality by the Ku Klux Klan, other reactionary whites, and the police using dogs and fire hoses against Black people demanding an end to discrimination and oppression. And there was more—a glimpse of Bobby Hutton Memorial Park in Oakland, named after a Black Panther Party youth murdered by the Oakland police. And there was the scene outside the 1968 Democratic Convention with protesters demanding an end to the Vietnam War, chanting “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”

Tom Brokaw, a prominent national news anchor who expresses the outlook of those who rule this country, was interviewed in the video saying “1968 was a volcanic eruption at every level,” a time when “the whole American culture kind of came unhinged.” Through the video you get a sense of the way the movements and rebellions of that period were giving strength to the athletes heading to Mexico City who were trying to decide whether, and how, to use their moment in the limelight to make a statement that would contribute to changing the world. And that is what Tommie Smith and John Carlos did.

After showing Tommie and John making their powerful black-gloved salute on the victory stand, the video goes on to show the way they were instantly attacked and vilified by the national media. They were forced out of the Olympic Village and off the U.S. Olympic team; and a mountain of public opinion was unleashed against them, while the millions who celebrated their actions were ignored.

Lee Evans, another Gold Medal-winning sprinter from 1968, describes in the video how at one point Tommie Smith came to his house with his suitcase in his hand, without a place to stay and unable to find a job. And Kimme Carlos, John Carlos’ daughter, described how her parents “were being harassed mercilessly, mercilessly.”

The video also gave other major Black sports figures an opportunity to express their thoughts. Tyrone Willingham, the current U. of Washington head football coach, said, “It’s amazing how a country can quickly turn. You win a gold medal for your country, and as soon as you take that stand and identify yourself as being proud of who you are, then you’re condemned.” Six-time Olympic medalist Jackie Joyner-Kersee said, “They were willing to sacrifice themselves for something far greater than a gold medal, or a bronze medal.” And Doug Williams, MVP of Super Bowl XXII and the only Black quarterback to win the Super Bowl, said “I think most Blacks would probably tell you, that day was a great day for them because it probably gave them some hope that we’re going to be able to overcome.”

 The public intellectual and Princeton professor Cornel West echoed Williams’ sentiments: “The fundamental lesson of what they did was courage; courage to think for themselves. And it’s the courage to hope. Because what they did was a sign of hope. And that’s a beautiful thing.” In the end even Brokaw admits, “It took a lot of courage for them to do what they did—a lot of courage.”

Bringing Out the Best

When Smith and Carlos were finally brought on stage, the entire audience came to their feet and gave them a long, enthusiastic applause. The two expressed their appreciation for the warm reception by the audience, and made clear that they both continue to thoroughly uphold their actions.

In a very real way, 40 years after their protest at the Mexico City Olympics, the actions taken by Tommie Smith and John Carlos were once again—and in many cases still—touching a deep chord in people, inspiring and bringing out the best sentiments among these athletes and other prominent figures of today, who had to be thinking about what these sprinters had been willing to put on the line in the interests of the masses of people, and whether it was worth it. An article in the Palm Springs paper, where John Carlos lives, quoted the white Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Tim Tebow from the University of Florida who said, “They had boldness and they had character and they stood up for what they believed in. That’s great… I think it’s a great example for other people. If you believe in something, don’t be ashamed of it. Stand up for it.” It also reported that “[WNBA] Los Angeles Sparks rookie Candace Parker, born 18 years after their protest, went up to Carlos to tell him that she has a poster of him and Smith on the victory stand.”

Samuel Jackson said in an informal moment afterwards, “Watching them was so moving and so touching to me, it meant so much to me because I was a child of that revolution.”

The Backlash

For the very reason that this moment of celebration and reflection inspired and brought out the best in these internationally regarded athletes and actors and those watching it on TV, it drew out the worst from one of the reactionary mouthpieces and ideologues for those in power.

The L.A. Times ran an Op Ed piece a week later by reactionary columnist Jonah Goldberg entitled, “’68 Olympics salute deserves no honor.” This screed comes out of the gate attacking ESPN for honoring Smith and Carlos, calling it the “triumph of celebrity culture,” an expression of “radical chic” upholding “self-indulgent protest.” It ridicules Black ESPN sportscaster Stuart Scott for wanting his daughters to understand why this was so important, the “grief and hatred” they had to face when they returned to the U.S., and the meaning of courage.

Then it goes to the heart of its attack—that “the black power salute was, for those who brandished it most seriously, a symbol of violence—rhetorical, political and literal—against the United States.” “It was the high-sign for a racist militia, the Black Panthers, which orchestrated the murder of innocents and allied itself with America’s enemies.”

Goldberg turns reality completely on its head. It was the revolutionary Black Panther Party that stood up to police brutality and murder, who became the targets of orchestrated murder organized by police forces across the country while the FBI through its COINTELPRO (counter-intelligence program) systematically worked to destroy them, leading to the murder and imprisonment of scores of young Black Panthers. He then essentially argues ‘what were they complaining about?’—saying that by the end of the 1960s, the U.S. had seen “two decades of steady—if slow—racial progress,” pointing to the desegregation of the military and the passage of the Civil Rights Acts.

And Goldberg’s not done yet. He ends his slander with an implication that Smith and Carlos are somehow responsible for the deaths of the Israeli athletes during the 1972 Munich Olympics: “In 1972, Palestinian terrorists—grateful for 1968’s lesson in the propaganda value of the Olympics media attention—slaughtered Israeli athletes.”

Readers Respond to Attack

What happened next is a window into the controversy and continued resistance among broad sections of people to the efforts to “get over” or “get beyond” the searing reality that the brutal, ongoing oppression and discrimination faced by Black people in America is still one of its most fundamental, defining features.

Within hours of its appearance, the L.A. Times was pelted with strongly-worded e-mails either supporting or condemning Goldberg’s piece. By the time the Times closed the blog two days after the article appeared, they had gotten 146 responses. Some joined in with Goldberg to condemn Smith and Carlos, and ESPN. One reader wrote that Goldberg’s column was a “great perspective, unfettered by political correctness or historical revisionism.” Another responded, “I remember very well what Smith and Carlos did at the Olympics and there wasn’t a single beat of ‘courage’ in their action. It defamed their country at a time when they should have honored it. I despised them for representing the U.S. at that international event following their symbolic negative gesture, and I despise them now as well. This is all political correctness—shamelessly so!”

But the great majority of comments (more than 70%) condemned Goldberg’s attempt to rewrite the history of that time, and its lessons. Many people posting comments were re-visiting that whole period of upsurge and rebellion with contemporary eyes, mainly arguing for the importance of upholding it, and in a number of cases putting it in the context of what this country is doing today. Here’s just a glimpse:

“I cannot believe you wrote this article. It is ludicrous to denigrate these courageous heroes of American history. Shame on you. America has a very, very awful history in its treatment of African Americans. This kind of writing is outrageous. I have a picture of the medal ceremony in my basement. I’m 49 years old, white and Canadian. Absolutely horrible what you wrote. I really think you should not write any more columns. Horrible.”

People challenged Goldberg’s core assumptions: “There had been two decades of ‘steady’ progress... following 400 years of slavery and subjugation. This comment alone demonstrates your incredible ignorance on matters of race.”

“Self-indulgent protest? 1968 was a year of demonstrations and assassinations, violent and racist attacks—rhetorical, political and literal—against black America. These men could have stood aside and done nothing, but instead they chose to demonstrate their pain and dreams for a better future to the world using a symbol of struggle, progress, and yes defiance.….”

Writers white and Black remembered vividly the impact the raised fists had on them: “I was twelve years old in ’68, a white boy, attending a school in the SF Valley. Black kids were being bused in from the inner city. Some became friends of mine. The Carlos/Smith medal ceremony provoked questions about my friends and their struggles. These young track athletes gave up a lot in life. They did it with a peaceful protest. How dare Mr. Goldberg try to somehow tie the great acts and sacrifices of Smith and Carlos to the hideous atrocities that happened in Munich!”

“As a white American who was a teenager at the time, I fully remember the year 1968, and all it meant to America. The raised fist salute was and remains a peaceful and meaningful protest against years of oppression. I don’t remember Mssrs. Smith and Carlos ever waging war on innocents, supporting torture, or engaging in the kind of general belligerence that has stained America’s recent history under Neoconservative influence.”

A number of Black Vietnam vets also recalled it vividly. “I was in my 2nd tour of duty as an infantryman in Vietnam, when I first saw John Carlos and Tommie Smith, fists raised and heads down, on the Olympic podium. The picture was met with a ‘right on!’ by nearly every black soldier. We lived institutionalized racism in our communities and in the military. This wasn’t about the Black Panthers—it was about Black Pride… Said it then, say it now, John and Tommie: ‘Right on, brothers!’”

“After returning from Viet Nam in 1968 and learning of the riots, the death of Dr. King and Sen. Kennedy, I took the raised fist as a display of pride, proud to be black and in America. African Americans being proud of their accomplishments should not be seen as an affront to White Americans. 1968 was the same year that James Brown sung ‘I am Black and I am Proud’.”

* * *

ESPN and sportscasters like Stuart Scott need to be supported for honoring and celebrating Tommie Smith and John Carlos; and for enabling the many who watched it to learn more about what they did and share that celebration. It is a powerful lesson about the impact that people can have when they courageously put the struggle of the people ahead of their own personal interests; and about the potential for those inspired by it to come to their side, especially when they are attacked and threatened by the defenders of the old order.  

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