At the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, two Black athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos thrust their fists in the air on the victory stand in a symbolic gesture against the oppressive treatment of Black people. Forty years later, on July 16, they will be the recipients of the Arthur Ashe Courageous Award at the ESPY Awards in Los Angeles.1 The Awards will be televised on Sunday evening, July 20. Previous recipients of this award include Billie Jean King, the tennis player who fought for equality of women in tennis, Cathy Freeman, the Australian 400 meter Olympic champion, who struggled for aboriginal rights, Muhammad Ali, and Kevin and Pat Tillman. Pat was the pro-football player who was killed in Afghanistan by friendly fire and Kevin, his brother, who opposes the crimes of the Bush regime and fought to expose the government cover-up of the incident when his brother was killed.2
This is the story of why Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists at the 1968 Olympics and the significance of this historic stand.
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It was 1968.
One of those times where it seemed like a whole century of events gets crammed into a few months or even weeks.
Black neighborhoods across the U.S., smoldering with discontent, burst into flames of rebellion. Across the ocean, students in Paris shut down the university. Chicago police attacked protesters at the Democratic National Convention. National liberation struggles raged in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution in socialist China was in full swing. Headlines reflected intense conflict, winds of change, and sky high dreams. The Vietnam War... the assassination of Martin Luther King... The Black Panthers... hundreds of thousands demonstrating against poverty, war, racism, and women’s oppression.
It was on this backdrop that Tommie Smith and John Carlos stepped onto the stage of history and made their mark.
It was as part of this whole struggle for a better world that these two men took a courageous stand that today, 40 years later, is something to remember, cherish, and learn from.
Taking a Stand in Speed City
As star sprinters, for Smith and Carlos it was all about speed. They were not only tremendous athletes, but their whole style reflected the attitude of the times—sporting shades as they sprinted around the track. Both men were world-class athletes: Smith held 11 world records simultaneously, including in the 200 and 400 meters, some individually and some as a member of a relay team. John Carlos, at one point, held the 100-meter world record.
Tommie Smith was the seventh in a family of 12 children, growing up in Clarksville, Texas. His father was a sharecropper and Tommie got strong working in the fields. He remembers, as a kid, going to the store to buy ice cream and getting harassed by white racists who told him to “go back to the jungle.”
John Carlos grew up in Harlem and got involved in civil rights and became an activist at a very young age. In high school he was already a track star and got a scholarship to East Texas State. He tells how, “About two minutes after I got there, I noticed that my name changed from John Carlos to Boy.”
The two men ended up going to school at San Jose State College (now San Jose State University) in California. They joined what became known as “Speed City’’—named for the collection of world-class sprinters trained by the innovative coach, Lloyd C. “Bud” Winter. It was here that athletes, both Black and white, helped form the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR), which included athletes trying to make the 1968 Olympic team.
The OPHR’s founding statement pointed out that “the oppression of Afro-Americans is greater than it ever was” and the athletes attempted to form a boycott of the Olympics in order to advance their demands. Three key demands were: (1) “Restore Muhammad Ali’s title” that had been removed because he refused to go into the army and fight in Vietnam,” (2) “Remove Avery Brundage as head of the U.S. Olympic Committee” because he was a white supremacist and a Nazi sympathizer, and (3) “Disinvite South Africa and Rhodesia” in order to support the black freedom struggles in these apartheid states.
When the International Olympic Committee decided not to allow South Africa and Rhodesia in the Olympics, many of the Black athletes decided not to boycott the Olympics, but began to look for other ways to protest.
As Smith and Carlos, along with others, prepared for the 1968 Olympics, controversy continued to swirl about whether there would be—and whether there should be—forms of protests by Black athletes at the games. Things divided out sharply. Some Black athletes were saying that they didn’t want to make such a sacrifice, that they really wanted to get a gold medal. While others argued that the times demanded—and this was an opportunity to make—a strong statement to the world about the condition of Black people in the United States, even if this meant jeopardizing your scholarship or career.
This was the spirit of the times. These were the kinds of big questions lots of people, especially the youth, were confronting: What was your life going to be about? Were you going to just “look out for number one”? Or was your life going to count for something bigger? Were you going to just try and etch out a life for yourself in this messed up society? Or were you going to stand with the people of the world and join the struggle for liberation?
The very idea of Black athletes taking such a defiant, rebellious stand elicited angry reactionary responses and ugly threats. Athletes involved with OPHR received death threats and hate mail. And Avery Brundage, the president of the International Olympic Committee who was an open racist, publicly stated: “I don’t think any of these boys will be foolish enough to demonstrate at the Olympic games and I think if they do they’ll be promptly sent home.”
At the same time, the strong stand by OPHR put a real pole out in society. And their cause got a lot of support and attracted people in society very broadly who saw this as part of the overall struggle for a more just society. That summer, leading up to the Olympics, many people started wearing the Olympic Project for Human Rights button as a way to show mass support and say to the world that this really mattered.
Victory and Defiance in Mexico City
October 2, ten days before the Games opened, the Mexican security forces massacred hundreds of students in Mexico City who were occupying the National University. When athletes arrived in the city for the Olympics, the government wanted to give an image of order and control and the Olympic Stadium was completely surrounded by armed soldiers. (See “The Year of the 1968 Olympics: A World of Struggle and Turmoil,” online at revcom.us.)
Among the Black athletes there was a lot of tension and anticipation about what was—or wasn’t—going to happen. Larry James, who won the Silver Medal in the 400 meter race, expressed what many of the Black Olympic athletes were thinking when he recalled: “When you go to the games you take yourself with you and what you do and how you do it is going to have an impact.”
The performance of the United States men’s track team was astounding. They won 7 of 12 gold medals and smashed five records. Tommie Smith and John Carlos finished first and third, respectively, in the 200 meters with Smith setting a world record.
The moment came when they were getting ready to take the victory stand. They were still trying to figure out what to do. At the last minute, they decided to put on black gloves. Peter Norman, the second place winner from Australia, wore an OPHR button on the victory stand. Norman later recounted, “I believed in human rights, I believed in what these two guys were about to do.”
Smith and Carlos stood on the stand with no shoes, their feet only in black socks. As the national anthem began, both bowed their heads and raised their fists, covered with the black gloves, in the air. Tommie Smith had a black scarf around his neck and John Carlos wore beads.
Smith later recalled, “The black fist in the air was only in recognition of those who had gone, it was a prayer of solidarity, it was a cry for help by my fellow brothers and sisters in this country, who had been lynched, who had been shot, who had been bitten by dogs, who water hoses had been set on, a cry for freedom. You could almost hear the wind blowing around my fist.”
The entire world saw this cry for freedom.
These two men courageously put the struggle of the people ahead of their own personal interests. And the power of their simple but profound gesture tremendously inspired people—then, and ever since, for the last four decades.
Immediately afterwards, in an interview with Howard Cosell, Smith explained the symbolism in their protest: “My raised right hand stood for the power in black America. Carlos’s left hand stood for the unity of black America. Together, they formed an arch of unity and power. The black scarf around my neck stood for black pride. The black socks with no shoes stood for black poverty in racist America. The totality of our effort was the regaining of black dignity.3
John Carlos, in a recent interview with Dave Zirin, said, “The beads were for those individuals that were lynched, or killed that no one said a prayer for, that were hung tarred. It was for those thrown off the side of the boats in the middle passage. All that was in my mind.”
The International Olympic Committee board met the very next morning. They threatened to disqualify the whole track team for the remainder of the games. The decision was made to send Smith and Carlos home and ban them from the Olympic games for life.
The press was relentless with their attacks on Smith and Carlos. The Los Angeles Times accused them of a “Nazi-like salute.” Time Magazine changed the Olympic motto to “Angrier, Nastier, Uglier.” Sportscaster Brent Musburger called them, “Black-skinned storm troopers.”
Despite the fact that they were being attacked broadly for what they did, Smith and Carlos had many supporters, including the Olympic Crew Team, all white and entirely from Harvard, who issued the statement: “We, as individuals, have been concerned about the place of the black man in American society in their struggle for equal rights. As members of the U.S. Olympic team, each of us has come to feel a moral commitment to support our black teammates in their efforts to dramatize the injustices and inequities which permeate out society.”
Once back home, the two athletes received more than 100 death threats each. Both found it difficult to get a job. John Carlos said in an interview with Dave Zirin, “We were under tremendous economic stress. I took any job I could find. I wasn’t too proud. Menial jobs, security jobs, gardener, caretaker, whatever I could do to try to make ends meet.”
To the masses of oppressed people and others who hate the way things are in this country and in the world, Smith and Carlos were heroes because they took responsibility for telling the world the way things are and they never backed down from that stand.
In his autobiography, Silent Gesture, Tommie Smith answers the question why it is important for celebrities to speak out on social and political issues. He says, “…if you are one of the world’s greatest in a particular field, as I was in athletics, you have an avenue, and you have a responsibility to use it, especially if you have something to say about society and how people are treated, people who are not in the position to say it themselves or who don’t have the ability to say it.”4
In 2002 Erik Grotz, a white student at San Jose State, organized to raise funds for a statue of Smith and Carlos when he found out about them and that they attended the school. “I couldn’t understand why the campus didn’t acknowledge their efforts as student activists,” said Grotz. “It would be an inspiration to other students. It would prove to them they can make an impact now.”
The 20-foot statue of Smith and Carlos on the victory stand was unveiled in October 2005. The second place spot on the podium, where Peter Norman was standing, was left open, so people could stand there to have their pictures taken with Smith and Carlos. Norman attended the unveiling, where he continued to support what Smith and Carlos had done 37 years prior. Norman was vilified when he returned to Australia after the 1968 Olympics for wearing the OPHR button on the medal stand. He, too, was not able to find a job, and when the Olympics came to Australia in 2000, he was not allowed to be a part of any events, despite the fact that he was one of the greatest Olympic sprinters ever.
Norman died in 2006, and Smith and Carlos, who continued to stay in touch with Norman throughout the years, were pallbearers at his funeral. About Norman, John Carlos said, “At least me and Tommie had each other when we came home. When Peter went home, he had to deal with a nation by himself. He never wavered, never denied that he was up there with us for a purpose and he never said ‘I’m sorry’ for his involvement. That’s indicative of who the man was.”
1968 was a high tide of struggle against the oppression of Black people in this country, and what Tommie Smith and John Carlos did at the Olympics is one of the greatest symbols of this struggle. In today’s world acts of courage, like what Smith and Carlos did, stand out and really do make a difference. And there is a real need, now more than ever, for people to follow such footsteps—to dare to go against the tide, defy the oppressive status quo and fight to bring about revolutionary change.
To be recognized as the recipients of the Arthur Ashe Courageous Award just brings that point home, and Tommie Smith said it well at the unveiling at the statue where he expressed being proud of the past, but also acknowledging the challenges before us. “I don’t feel vindicated,” Smith said. “To be vindicated means that I did something wrong. I didn’t do anything wrong. I just carried out a responsibility. We felt a need to represent a lot of people who did more than we did but had no platform, people who suffered long before I got to the victory stand....We’re celebrated as heroes by some, but we’re still fighting for equality.”
Tommie Smith and John Carlos never got the pro contracts or the big endorsements. They didn’t “get paid” off their tremendous victory. Instead, they used their moment in the limelight to make a powerful statement about justice... and to move forward the struggle for liberation.
The powers-that-be made them pay dearly for standing up.
But they’ve never renounced it. They’ve never backed down. They’ve never apologized.
Was it worth it? Worth it to sacrifice so much to strike a blow for freedom?
Well, ask yourself this: Who does history remember? Who do the masses cherish?
The ones who go for self?
Or those who take a stand for the people, no matter what the cost?