As we approach the 50th anniversary of their iconic moment on the medal stand at the 1968 Olympics, their protest still remains relevant.
October 16th is the 50th anniversary of John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s silent protest atop the Olympic medal stand in Mexico City. The image of that moment has gone on to become one of the most iconic capturings of Black athletic protest.
Smith and Carlos, the respective winners of the gold and bronze medals in the 1968 Olympics’ 200-meter dash, stood atop the medal stand wearing black socks and no shoes to symbolize African-American poverty. They each wore a black glove to express African-American strength and unity.
Most people today focus on the shoes and gloves, but there was other elements as well, with Smith wearing a scarf and Carlos sporting beads around his neck to honor those whose cause of death, going back centuries, was America’s insidious racist institution of lynching.
The country was incredibly divided at the time over the Vietnam War and the growing anit-war protests. The civil rights movement was dealt a serious blow with the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy and prior to the 1968 games, there was some serious discussions, led by college professor and sociologist Harry Edwards, about boycotting the Olympics all together to protest America’s racial and societal inequities.
Edwards recruited a group of athletes, among them being Carlos and Smith, who were students of his at San Jose State University, to join his Olympic Project for Human Rights.
In a 2016 interview with The Shadow League, Edwards offered some insight into how he was drawn to activism:
The Shadow League: What inspired you to lead a life of activism, awareness and education?
Dr. Harry Edwards: I grew up in East St. Louis, which already had a horrendous history of race relations going back to the 1917 race riots where white people killed over 300 blacks. The scars of that were still there when I was born in 1942. People that I grew up with talked about the 1917 race riots.
I was a child of the Emmitt Till era. I remember seeing that picture in Jet magazine. For the first time, it dawned on me that there were some things my father, as big and bad and strong as he was, could not save me from. Then having come of age in the 1960s with the emergence of the civil rights movement after the 1954 Supreme Court case of Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, I saw the fire hoses washing old folks and children down the streets like basketballs. I watched the dogs being sicked on school teachers, Pullman porters, maids, and people who were marching for what the Constitution said was their right to vote in places like Selma, Alabama.
In Mississippi, I watched them uncover the bodies of (Andrew) Goodman, (James) Chaney and (Mickey) Schwerner in the Freedom Summer in 1964. I watched the investigation of Medgar Evers’ murder and no one was convicted. Two-and-a-half weeks after the March on Washington, I watched where a church (16th Street Baptist Church) was bombed, killing four little girls in Birmingham, Alabama.
When I went to San Jose State, there were two black faculty members on campus. The athletic department never interviewed a black coaching candidate, much less had a black coach on the staff or any other capacity – not even as a secretary or janitor in the building. Those contradictions were right in my face every day.
At one level, any white guy would’ve been proud and seen my accomplishments as outstanding and me living the American dream. Holding national records, being on the draft board of three professional teams and a Woodrow Wilson Fellow and on his way to do Ph.D. work at Cornell. That’s the American dream.
On the other side, it’s what James Baldwin stated, ‘To be black and to be aware in America is to be in a constant state of rage.’ That contradiction and my efforts to deal with it on a personal level were a driving force of motivation in my life. This was from the time I saw that picture of Emmitt Till in Jet magazine. It gnawed away at me and motivated me down the path I’ve taken.
TSL: What advice would you give to black athletes on any level – high school, college or pro – in terms of using the field/court and their name as a platform for social awareness?
Dr. Edwards: The first thing I would tell any young athlete is to dream with your eyes open.
With sports, from the first time you enter the area, you’re on a biological clock. Your skills are going to develop over a period time, peak at a period of time and then begin to decline. You have to understand, for the majority of your life, if you’re lucky to be on this side of the lawn, you’ll be making a living doing something else.
The second thing I’d say is, anytime you want to speak out, do your homework. Otherwise, just sit down and shut up. As much as I like him, Charles Barkley, many times absolutely makes no sense. Freedom of speech is a universal right in this country. But the right doesn’t make it right. What makes the speaking right is – did you do your homework?
Far too often, we find people not specifically in political or analytical arenas, wind up speaking out based upon the verbiage and communication in their own little bubble, which is oftentimes slanted and uninformed if not outright ignorant and embarrassing.
TSL: Saying Black Lives Matter is nothing new under the sun, it’s just been given a hashtag. What’s your thoughts on the movement and tips for improvement?
Dr. Edwards: America has evolved based on movements. America has broadened the democratic participation through efforts which initially began as movements. The Boston Tea Party was not a government program. The abolition movement, the labor movement of the 1930s, the women’s suffrage movement of the 1920s and 1930s, the civil rights movement, the environmental movement, the gay rights movement, all of these movements compelled society to deal with issues that otherwise would’ve been ignored or denied.
Movements have been critical to the evolution of America. Movements are critical in the effort to create and form that more perfect union. This goes all the way back to the beginnings of this society when Samuel Adams and his Sons of Liberty movement that threw 342 cases of tea in Boston Harbor.
Black Lives Matter is in that tradition. It is also the case that movements have typically been diversified in their leadership. That is to say, no central overpowering leadership or they have been leaderless.
What you have with Black Lives Matter is typical of the civil rights movement, which had a diversified leadership. You had Dr. King, Malcolm X, the Black Panther Party, Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, NAACP, National Urban League as well as the Congress of Racial Equality.
You have different leadership pockets that are involved in this and there’s no central agreed upon policy or philosophy. But they do know one thing. They want the madness to stop in terms of the vilification, criminalization and execution of black men, women and children.
Although a large scale boycott did not take place as a result of Edwards’ work with his Olympic Project for Human Rights, one very prominent athlete made his own statement by not participating in the 1968 games. In his 2017 memoir, “Coach Wooden and Me”, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote:
My development as a basketball player paralleled my evolution as a social activist. The more confident and successful I was on the court, the more confident I felt about expressing my political convictions. That personal progression reached its most controversial climax in 1968, when I refused to join the Olympic basketball team. This started a firestorm of criticism, racial epithets, and death threats that people still ask me about today.
I didn’t reach that decision easily. I really, really wanted to join the team. It would be an exciting challenge to play against the best basketball players in the world as well as to be on the same team as the best college players in the country. Plus, the adventure of going to Mexico City and hanging with athletes from around the world appealed to the young man in me.
But the idea of going to Mexico to have fun seemed so selfish in light of the racial violence that was facing the country. The previous summer had seen two major riots, one in Newark that had lasted five days, and one in Detroit that had lasted eight days. And on April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had been assassinated. White America seemed ready to do anything necessary to stop the progress of civil rights, and I thought that going to Mexico would seem like I was either fleeing the issue or more interested in my career than in justice. I couldn’t shake the feeling that if I did go and we won, I’d be bringing honor to the country that was denying our rights.
That same year The Autobiography of Malcolm X was published, posthumously since he’d been assassinated three years earlier. I didn’t just read it, I devoured every chapter, every page, every word. His story couldn’t have been more different than mine—street hustler and pimp who goes to prison, converts to Islam, emerges as an enlightened political leader—but I felt as if every insult he suffered and every insight he discovered were mine. He put into words what was in my heart; he clearly articulated what I had only vaguely expressed.
Malcolm was dead. Dr. King was dead.
Black leaders were an endangered species. That enraged me. There had been public accusations that the U.S. government, specifically J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI, were targeting black leaders in secret campaigns to discredit, humiliate, and publicly ruin them. White America dismissed this as black paranoia due to lack of proof, but black Americans knew it was true simply from observation. It wasn’t until two years later that these suspicions were confirmed, when anti-war activists broke into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, and found classified documents that detailed the FBI’s active policy of intimidation against black leaders.
It was too difficult for me to get enthusiastic about representing a country that refused to represent me or others of my color. Another reason I chose not to participate was my intense dislike for the International Olympic Committee’s president, Avery Brundage, who, during the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, benched two Jewish runners so as not to embarrass Adolph Hitler by having Jews win a gold medal. Not only was this against the Olympic rules, but information has since been revealed that Brundage’s construction company was bidding for German contracts, which is why he was so eager to please Hitler. I couldn’t bring myself to work under the supervision of someone like that. America was angry at me for not showing gratitude to the country that had given me so many opportunities. I was grateful, but I also thought it disingenuous to show appreciation unless all people had the same opportunities. Just because I had made it to a lifeboat didn’t mean I could forget those who hadn’t. Or not try to keep the next ship from sinking.
As the national anthem blared that autumn night in 1968 at Estadio Olimpico Universitario, and with an international audience tuned into the television broadcast, Smith and Carlos, with their medals draped around their neck, bowed their heads and raised a fist.
A loud chorus of boos washed over them. After returning home, they were ostracized by the power brokers in the track-and-field establishment, effectively ending their athletic careers. Smith would eventually, and ironically, be given an opportunity to play in the NFL with the Cincinnati Bengals.
Three days after the medal ceremony, when the image first appeared in print, white people lost their ever-loving minds and Smith and Carlos became front page news the world over. U.S. Olympic officials, claiming that the track stars used their platform to politicize the games, swiftly suspended them, revoked their privileges, made them pack their bags and sent them back home.
Mainstream America was embarrassed and angry at being exposed, with the runners letting the world know that the United States was rotting with racism and social inequities. Those who were angry deemed their actions to be an outgrowth of the growing “Black Power Radicalism” that threatened the country’s long-standing social order.
Brent Musburger, then a reporter for the Chicago American newspaper before he gained a certain level of celebrity as a television sports personality, spoke for many when he called Carlos and Smith, “…black-skinned storm troopers.”
Musburger wrote, “They sprinkled their symbolism with black track shoes and black scarfs and black power medals. It’s destined to go down as the most unsubtle demonstration in the history of protest. But you’ve got to give Smith and Carlos credit for one thing. They knew how to deliver whatever it was they were trying to deliver on international television, thus insuring maximum embarrassment for the country that is picking up the tab for their room and board here in Mexico City. One gets a little tired of having the United States run down by athletes who are enjoying themselves at the expense of their country.”
Some called them militants performing “a Nazi-like salute.”
The duo received death threats. And in a day and time where Black leaders were routinely being assassinated, those menacing messages could not be ignored, and they inevitably affected both men’s psyches. They returned home, not as conquering heroes and brave activists, but as pariahs.
When reflecting on the moment that inevitably turned his world upside down, Carlos once said, “I went up there as a dignified black man and said: ‘What’s going on is wrong,’ [the protest] was a cry for freedom and for human rights. We had to be seen because we couldn’t be heard.”
When questioned by reporters after the medal ceremony, Smith said, “We are Black and we are proud of being Black. Black America will understand what we did tonight.”
In a 2001 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Smith, who set the world record in that 200-meter final, reflected back by saying, “I was much more frightened on that stand than I had ever been on the starting block. But I felt I had no choice. … I had to show the world what life was like off that stand.”
50 years later, we’re in the midst of a new wave of athlete activism, encapsulated by Colin Kaepernick taking a knee on NFL sidelines during the pre-game playing of the national anthem, an action which led to his undeniable blackballing by the league and a firestorm of white rage at a Black man who had the audacity to point out America still has its foot on the necks of people of color.
Today’s group of conscious Black athletes are following in the footsteps of their forefathers. Jesse Owens, Jack Johnson and Joe Louis fought for inclusion. After World War II, Jackie Robinson, Earl Lloyd and others were kicking down the doors that kept African-Americans out of team sports. Carlos and Smith’s colleagues in the late 1960’s and into the ’70s, which includes the Gold Standard in Muhammad Ali, were fighting for dignity, respect and self-determination.
Smith and Carlos suffered immensely for their protests, as did Ali, as is Kaepernick, who is spending the prime years of his athletic life without an NFL job, despite being better than many active quarterbacks on league rosters.
“I’m calling for all my fellow athletes to step up and take charge,” Carmelo Anthony wrote on a 2016 social media post. “There’s no more sitting back and being afraid of tackling and addressing political issues anymore.”
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First off let me start off by saying ” All Praise Due To The Most High.” Secondly, I’m all about rallying, protesting, fighting for OUR people. Look I’ll even lead the charge, By Any Means Necessary. We have to be smart about what we are doing though. We need to steer our anger in the right direction. The system is Broken. Point blank period. It has been this way forever. Martin Luther King marched. Malcolm X rebelled. Muhammad Ali literally fought for US. Our anger should be towards the system. If the system doesn’t change we will continue to turn on the TVs and see the same thing. We have to put the pressure on the people in charge in order to get this thing we call JUSTICE right. A march doesn’t work. We tried that. I’ve tried that. A couple social media post/tweet doesn’t work. We’ve all tried that. That didn’t work. Shooting 11 cops and killing 5 WILL NOT work. While I don’t have a solution, and I’m pretty sure a lot of people don’t have a solution, we need to come together more than anything at this time. We need each other. These politicians have to step up and fight for change. I’m calling for all my fellow ATHLETES to step up and take charge. Go to your local officials, leaders, congressman, assemblymen/assemblywoman and demand change. There’s NO more sitting back and being afraid of tackling and addressing political issues anymore. Those days are long gone. We have to step up and take charge. We can’t worry about what endorsements we gonna lose or whose going to look at us crazy. I need your voices to be heard. We can demand change. We just have to be willing to. THE TIME IS NOW. IM all in. Take Charge. Take Action. DEMAND CHANGE. Peace7 #StayMe7o
Last month, the New York Times’ Jeré Longman wrote:
The most direct connection between Smith and Carlos and Kaepernick is Harry Edwards, a sociologist who was a mentor to Smith and Carlos at San Jose State in 1968 and has been a longtime adviser to the San Francisco 49ers, whom Kaepernick led to the Super Bowl during the 2012 season. Edwards calls Kaepernick the “Muhammad Ali of his generation.”
“You don’t make this sacrifice, pay this price, unless you love this country,” Edwards said of Smith and Carlos and Kaepernick. “What they are saying is, ‘We’re better than this as Americans.’ ”
Smith and Carlos and Kaepernick were empowered by separate but broad-based social movements, the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the Black Lives Matter movement of today. All three athletes brilliantly understood the capacity of silent gestures conveyed through the rituals of sport, said Douglas Hartmann, chairman of the sociology department at the University of Minnesota. Kaepernick’s kneeling during the anthem, he said, “is taking a gesture that is religious in overtones, very spiritual almost.” (A military veteran and former N.F.L. player suggested to Kaepernick that he not sit but kneel, as is done for fallen soldiers.)
There are differences, too, between the protests then and now. Kaepernick has the corporate backing of Nike, the reach of social media, public support from white athletes and coaches and belongs to a generation of athletes more broadly willing to use their platforms to address social issues, Hartmann said.
“In 1968, it was a small sample of elite Olympic athletes who were the only ones who really dared to think about boycotts or protests; now you’ve got high school teams taking a knee,” said Hartmann, the author of “Race, Culture and the Revolt of the Black Athlete: The 1968 Olympic Protests and Their Aftermath.”
50 years later, John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s silent gesture screams louder than ever.