Brianna Jackson | Contributing Writer
This year’s upcoming Summer Olympic Games, which will be held in Rio de Janeiro, has grabbed the world’s attention and the event is shaping up to be one of the biggest ever. But, 48 years ago, two men decided to take a stand to voice their frustration.
On October 16, 1968, two African American athletes made history at the Mexico City Olympics. During the national anthem the pair, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, stood atop a medal podium, both wearing black socks and no shoes and Smith wore a black scarf around his neck.
They bowed their heads and raised their black-gloved fists, staging a silent protest against the discrimination, grave injustice, impoverished conditions and societal mistreatment of their fellow African Americans that was currently taking place in America.
Carlos stated at the time, “We knew that what we were going to do was far greater than any athletic feat.” Many were outraged by their actions, but countless others were thrilled and astonished that two blacks stood proudly and unafraid to take a stance on what they believed in.
Smith said he raised his right fist to represent black power in America, while Carlos raised his left fist to represent black unity and together they formed an arch of unity and power.
Gold medalist Smith said years later, in a documentary on the 1968 Mexico City games produced for HBO called Salute, “We were just human beings who saw a need to bring attention to the inequality in our country; I don’t like the idea of people looking at it as negative.”
Smith continued, “There was nothing but a raised fist in the air and a bowed head, acknowledging the American flag—not symbolizing a hatred for it.”
Australian sprinter and silver medalist in the 200m at the time, Peter Norman, who is white, stood in solidarity with the pair during the anthem wearing an Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) badge, which was an organization formed by black athletes to boycott the Olympic Games, in support of their protest.
The boycott was came about when Harry Edwards, a professor of sociology at San Jose State university, and friend of Tommie Smith, said African Americans should refuse “to be utilised as ‘performing animals’ in the games.”
At a press conference held after the event Smith, who holds seven world records, said: “If I win I am an American, not a black American. But if I did something bad then they would say ‘a Negro’. We are black and we are proud of being black. Black America will understand what we did tonight.”
Just two days later, Smith and Bronze medalist Carlos were suspended from their national team, expelled and sent back to America. They were accused of violating the Olympics by bringing politics into the game and were even sent death threats on their way home. But many African Americans welcomed the two back with open arms as heroes to the black community.
Smith also went on to tell reporters that, at that time, black members of the American Olympic Team were considering a total boycott of the games. He said: “It is very discouraging to be in a team with white athletes. On the track you are Tommie Smith, the fastest man in the world, but once you are in the dressing rooms you are nothing more than a dirty Negro.”
In his autobiography, Silent Gesture, Smith stated that the gesture was not a “Black Power” salute, but a “human rights salute” in order to fight for equality among his race.
The pair both went on to become athletic coaches for high school students and it wasn’t until thirty years later that they were honored for their part in furthering the civil rights movement in America.
“It was a polarizing moment because it was seen as an example of black power radicalism,” says Doug Hartmann, a University of Minnesota sociologist and the author of Race, Culture, and the Revolt of the Black Athlete: The 1968 Olympic Protests and Their Aftermath. “Mainstream America hated what they did. Many criticized them for their efforts but others knew it was a memorable moment and history was made.”