While many will recall the great scores of Nadia Comaneci in the 1976 Olympics in Women’s Gymnastics. Or, perhaps they will remember Mark Spitz in the 1972 Olympics for swimming. Still others will recall the glory of the United States Hockey gold medal win in 1980.
I choose to remember a time when being political and Black cost several young Black men their Olympic status.
It was the Summer Olympics of 1968.
It was also in a year of awakening for a country that had long been sleeping – Sleeping in the bed of racism and segregation against the Black men, women, and children of America.
In April of this year, Reverend Dr Martin Luther King, Jr had been assassinated in Georgia while fighting for the rights of garbage workers. Another leg in the journey for civil rights for all Black Americans, a leg, too soon cut off.
Two track runners: Tommie Smith and John Carlos, had just finished first and third in the 200 meter race. Tommy finished in a world record-breaking time of 19.83 seconds.
The two men, along with Australia’s Peter Norman, stood on the podium to collect their medals. All three men were ready and waiting to have their victory celebrated as many others before them. They were about to have their medals draped around their necks in front of a nation and the world (via television), and for Smith and Carlos, to hear the familiar strains of “The Star Spangled Banner” reverberate throughout the Mexico City stadium.
As the song began to play, Smith and Carlos, wearing “Olympic Project for Human Rights” badges, raised fists in the air in protest to the treatment of Blacks in America. They proudly displayed the “Power to the People” salute, also known as The Black Power fist, as they stood on the podium.
The two U.S athletes received their medals shoeless, but wearing black socks, to represent black poverty. Smith wore a black scarf around his neck to represent black pride. Carlos had his tracksuit top unzipped to show solidarity with all blue collar workers in the U.S. and wore a necklace of beads which he described “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.*
This representation of courage by Smith and Carlos was met with scorn and condemnation. Boos echoed through the stadium as the men left the podium.
Smith was later interviewed and remarked, “If I win, I am American, not a black American. But if I did something bad, then they would say I am a Negro. We are black and we are proud of being black. Black America will understand what we did tonight.”
Tommie Smith and John Carlos were suspended form the Olympic team immediately and were removed from the Olympic Village.
IOC president Avery Brundage stated that the Olympics were no place for political statements, and they could not be compared to the Nazi salute during the Berlin Games of 1936. These were considered a “nation’s” salute as opposed to Smith and Carlos’ raised fist, which represented only a part of a nation. The part of the nation, unfortunately, that was undervalued and ignored and worse – racially hated.
As a young Black child of seven in 1968, the world was becoming more and more fascinating to me. I was seeing history – good and bad – happen “right before my young eyes.”
I had seen the funeral of John Fitzgerald Kennedy in 1963. I remember standing in front of the television and watching John-John salute his father’s coffin as it made its way down the street.
This was followed by the sudden death of Rev. King in Atlanta, Georgia on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel just earlier this year. And then I also saw his brother Robert F Kennedy being carried across the country in a train after his assassination in June of 1968. This, after the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, California.
And now, in October of 1968, just when the hopes of a nation were resting upon the shoulders, and in the dreams of two young Black men in the Track and Field events, we, as a country, got to see just how far we had not come.
We got to see that it was okay to be an American and express yourself and your feelings, but if you were a Black person in America, silence was your best voice.
I was proud and happy for Tommie Smith and John Carlos and their accomplishments. I was prouder still that they stood up for their people in a public arena, with the whole world watching.