1968 Olympic Black Power salute: 50 years later

AUTODIDACT 17 | 11/8/2018, 12:29 p.m.
During the medal ceremony after their 200-meter race at the Summer Olympics in Mexico City, Oct. 16, 1968, African-American sprinters ...

During the medal ceremony after their 200-meter race at the Summer Olympics in Mexico City, Oct. 16, 1968, African-American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos partook in a very defiant act of social protest that immortalized them. The photo of them defiantly standing at the podium with their black leather-clad fists thrust skyward, with Australia’s Peter Norman standing stoic, still stands as one of the most iconic images of the 20th century.

Smith won the gold medal with a world-record time of 19.83 seconds, Norman seized silver at 20.06 seconds and Carlos captured bronze with a 20.10 time.

On their way to the medal ceremony afterward, they discarded their running shoes to protest poverty, posing on the podium in black socks, and because Carlos’ gloves were at the Olympic Village, Smith lent him his left one. All three wore Olympic Project for Human Rights badges.

As the national anthem played, the two African-American athletes bowed their heads and pumped their opposite clenched-fists in the air, as the crowd jeered their revolutionary gesture.

“If I win, I am American, not a Black American, but if I did something bad, then they would say I am a Negro,” stated Smith. “We are Black and we are proud of being Black. Black America will understand what we did tonight.”

Smith slung a black scarf around his neck, representing Black lynchings. Carlos unzipped his track jacket, breaking Olympic protocol, in support of “all the working-class people —Black and white—in Harlem who had to struggle and work with their hands all day.” The beads of the necklace he wore “were for those individuals that were lynched, or killed and 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,” he wrote in “The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment That Changed the World.”

The International Olympic Committee said the act was “unfit for the apolitical, international forum the Olympic Games were intended to be,” and their “actions were a deliberate and violent breach of the fundamental principles of the Olympic spirit.”

They were promptly expelled from the Olympic Village, and on returning to the U.S., they were suspended from the U.S. track team and received death threats.

“I had a moral obligation to step up,” Carlos explained. “Morality was a far greater force than the rules and regulations they had. I came to Mexico City to make a statement, not to win medals. 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.”

This act occurred while anti-Vietnam War rallies, police brutality protests and race riots erupted nationwide, after the Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy assassinations.

Smith expressed that they were attempting to highlight Black injustices. “I don’t like the idea of people looking at it as negative,” he said. “There was nothing but a raised fist in the air and a bowed head, acknowledging the American flag—not symbolizing a hatred for it.”

Carlos said their act was merely meant to say, “Hey world, the U.S. is not like you might think it is for Blacks and other people of color. Just because we have USA on our chest does not mean everything is peachy clean and we are living large.”

When Norman passed in 2006, Carlos and Smith were pallbearers at his funeral.

Smith said that their act wasn’t a “Black Power salute,” but a “human rights salute.”

“We were concerned about the lack of Black assistant coaches, about how Muhammad Ali got stripped of his title, about the lack of access to good housing, and our kids not being able to attend the top colleges,” he said.

Carlos concluded, “I don’t have any misgivings about it being frozen in time. It’s a beacon for a lot of people around the world. So many people find inspiration in that portrait. That’s what I was born for.”