By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
On Wednesday, October 16, 1968, two African-American athletes raised their fists in the Black Power salute as they stood on the podium to accept their Olympic medals and they remain icons of the Civil Rights struggle.
The action of then 23-year-old John Wesley Carlos and Tommie Smith, then 24-year-old, was a protest against the oppression of African-Americans who had been struggling to claim their rights as American citizens since the abolition of slavery in 1865.
It is surprising that there were any African-American athletes representing their country at the Olympics in Mexico City in 1968. The Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR), organized by a then 25-year-old African-American professor, Harry Edwards (now Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley), advocated a boycott by African-American athletes of the 1968 Summer Olympics if the “Whites only” athletic teams from the White supremacist controlled African countries, South Africa and Rhodesia, were allowed to participate at the Olympics.
The OPHR had four demands: “withdrawal of South Africa and Rhodesia from the games, restoration of Muhammad Ali’s world heavyweight boxing title, Avery Brundage to step down as president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the hiring of more African-American assistant coaches.” After the IOC strategically withdrew invitations for South Africa and Rhodesia to attend the Games, the boycott failed to achieve widespread support.
However, Carlos and Smith, as members of the OPHR decided to stage a protest when they received medals. Many years later when asked if they had planned the protest at the 1968 Summer Olympic Games Tommie Smith reportedly replied: “It was in my head the whole year. We first tried to have a boycott but not everyone was down with that plan. A lot of athletes thought that winning medals would supercede or protect them from racism. But even if you won the medal, it ain’t going to save your momma. It ain’t going to save your sister or children. It might give you 15 minutes of fame, but what about the rest of your life? I’m not saying that they didn’t have the right to follow their dreams, but to me the medal was nothing but the carrot on a stick.”
There was no doubt that these two athletes would be successful at the Olympic Games since Tommie Smith was one of the greatest sprinters in the world in 1968 (he is the only man in the history of track and field to hold 11 world records simultaneously and had equalled or broken 13 world records) and at the 1968 Olympic Trials, John Carlos won the 200-metre dash in 19.92 seconds, surpassing Smith’s world record by 0.3 seconds.
After finishing first (Smith) and third (Carlos) in the 200-metre dash at the Mexico City Olympics, the two African-American athletes chose to put their lives and livelihood on the line to make a profound political statement. Smith, adorned with his gold medal and Carlos, with his bronze medal, bravely bowed their heads as the American national anthem played. Both athletes were shoeless as they stood on the podium, only wearing black socks to represent the economic disadvantage of African-Americans.
The athletes also wore one black glove each; Smith wore his on his right hand, Carlos wore his on his left hand. Smith later said that his right-handed demonstration was meant to represent Black Power in America while the glove on the left hand of Carlos represented unity among African-Americans. After the protest there were boos and racist name-calling from the White American spectators.
When asked for a reaction to the abuse Carlos said: “When we arrived at the award stand there was a lot of applause. When we left there were many boos and thumbs down. Well, John Carlos and Tommie Smith want the people who booed to know that Black people are not lower animals like roaches and rats. We’re not like some sort of a show horse who does its job and then had some peanuts tossed at it. We’d like to tell all White people that if they don’t care for things Black people do, they should not go see Black people perform.”
Speaking of the treatment they received during the 1968 Olympics Smith 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.”
Avery Brundage got his revenge on the two athletes who were members of the movement (OPHR) that had called for his removal as president of the IOC. The IOC decided to strip Smith and Carlos of their medals and expel them from the Olympic village. As president of the IOC, Brundage issued this statement: “The basic principle of the Olympic Games is that politics plays no part whatsoever in them. U.S. athletes violated this universally accepted principle…to advertise domestic political views.”
Carlos and Smith were suspended by the American Olympic Committee and ordered to leave Mexico City.
When questioned during an interview about their reason for not wearing shoes when they stood on the podium to receive their medals on October 16, 1968 Carlos said: “We wanted the world to know that in Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, South Central Los Angeles, Chicago, that people were still walking back and forth in poverty without even the necessary clothes to live.
Carlos, speaking on the significance of the beads that were worn, said: “The beads were for those individuals that were lynched, or killed that no-one said a prayer for, that were hung and tarred. It was for those thrown off the side of the boats in the middle passage. We were trying to wake the country up and wake the world up to.”
Their principled stance on October 16, 1968 in Mexico City took a toll on the lives of both Carlos and Smith. In his 2011 book, The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment That Changed the World, Carlos writes about leaving the podium: “I was ready to get off that track, proud that we’d said our piece. But I had no idea the moment on the medal stand would be frozen for all time. I had no idea what we’d face. I didn’t know or appreciate at that precise moment, that the entire trajectory of our young lives had just irrevocably changed.”
The abuse they had experienced in Mexico was nothing compared to what awaited them on their return to America. In the 2005 book, What’s My Name, Fool?: Sports and Resistance in the United States, White American sportswriter David Zirin interviewed Carlos, who spoke of the negative effect of the racist backlash on his and his family’s life, which he partly blames for his wife’s suicide in 1977.
Speaking of his struggle to support his family following the 1968 protest Carlos said: “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. We had four children and some nights I would have to chop up our furniture and make a fire in the middle of our room just to stay warm.”
His family was subjected to abuse from the CIA and the FBI, including surveillance and emotional harassment. In an October 2011 interview with Amy Goodman of “Democracy Now”, Carlos spoke of his phone being tapped. He also said that he, along with his wife and children, were followed by members of the FBI and CIA. His wife was sent anonymous letters accusing her husband of various types of misconduct until she suffered a breakdown and eventually committed suicide.
Both men survived the attacks and today Carlos and Smith are recognized as heroes of the Civil Rights movement. In 2008, three years before Carlos’ autobiography was published, Smith wrote his, titled Silent Gesture: The Autobiography of Tommie Smith.
Unfortunately, you would have to search far and wide to find an African-American athlete who would be willing to speak out or stand up against the abuse of fellow African-Americans today. African-American sportswriter Shaun Powell addresses this in his 2007 book, Souled Out? How Blacks Are Winning and Losing in Sports, where he writes: “Every once in a while a lonely cry in the wilderness from the rare Black athlete who chooses to speak out on issues. Otherwise muffled by wealth and softened by a fawning society Black athletes today share a common role model and mentor. They’d rather not be like Tommie Smith and John Carlos. They’d rather be like Mike.”