On Oct. 16, 1968, American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised black-gloved fists during the national anthem to protest racial inequality.
“In 1968, the United States was verging on chaos,” writes David Davis in the Los Angeles Times. “As the Vietnam War raged in Asia, the civil rights movement raged in America’s cities. Assassins’ bullets felled Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.”
African-American college athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos were keenly aware of the unprecedented change sweeping the country. While at San Jose State University, the two met Harry Edwards, a sociologist and teacher at the school, who initially urged all African-American athletes to boycott the 1968 Mexico City Olympics to protest the slow progress of the civil rights movement. When the boycott failed to gain support, the decision to protest was left to individual athletes, and Carlos and Smith took up the charge.
Smith and Carlos finished first and third, respectively, in the 200-meter Olympic final. Smith set a world record, finishing in 19.83 seconds. They decided that they would use the medal ceremony to make a gesture on American racism.
The two removed their shoes and wore black socks to signify black poverty; Smith wore a black scarf and Carlos wore beads to signify lynchings. They had each planned to wear black gloves to represent black power and unity, but Carlos forgot his pair in the Olympic Village. Australian Peter Norman, the second place finisher, suggested that each man wear a single glove. Norman agreed to wear a Olympic Project for Human Rights badge, demonstrating his support for the protest.
As “The Star-Spangled Banner” played, Smith and Carlos raised their gloved fists. “Any resemblance to Lady Liberty lifting her torch was ironic, for Smith and Carlos were taking U.S. society to task for having failed to extend liberty and justice to all,” writes Kenny Moore in Sports Illustrated.
Reactions: Condemnation and Admiration
Sources in this Story
- Los Angeles Times: Two runners, once united with Olympic gesture, are now divided
- Sports Illustrated: A Courageous Stand
- Time: The Olympics: Black Complaint
- The BBC: 1968: Black athletes make silent protest
- The Times of London: Caught in Time: Black Power salute, Mexico, 1968
- The New York Times: Vilified to Glorified: Olympic Redux
The initial reaction to Smith and Carlos gesture was highly negative. “The stadium rocked with boos and cat-calls and some of the spectators made thumbs-down gestures as they would to a Mexican matador preparing for the kill,” wrote The Associated Press’ Will Grimsley, who called their gesture a “Nazi-like salute.”
Time called it a “public display of petulance that sparked one of the most unpleasant controversies in Olympic history and turned the high drama of the games into theater of the absurd.”
Within hours the International Olympic Committee had flatly condemned their political statement, with an IOC spokesperson calling it “a deliberate and violent breach of the fundamental principles of the Olympic spirit.” It ordered the U.S. Olympic Committee to expel Smith and Carlos under the threat of expelling all U.S. athletes; the USOC complied.
The black community saw Smith and Carlos as heroes. Their fellow Olympic athletes were divided. American decathlete Bill Toomey said the Olympics weren’t a place for political protest, but British runner John Wetton remarked, “We all thought it was a bloody good show. It's bully that these blokes had nerve enough to express their feelings.”
In the four decades since their gesture, Smith and Carlos have come to be regarded as heroes by a majority of the American population. In 2005, San Jose State honored them with a statue on campus.
“Smith and Carlos made one of the most courageous and enduring acts of sports demonstration in my lifetime, possibly in modern athletic history,” writes William C. Rhoden in The New York Times. “The act was a profound gesture against oppression.”
Life After the Olympics
Life after the Olympics was difficult for Smith and Carlos, who have become estranged. They faced death threats and racial abuse upon their return to the U.S., and had financial difficulties as they struggled to find careers. Carlos’ wife committed suicide in 1977, in part because of the abuse and financial distress.
Norman also had difficulties following his participation in the gesture. The Australian Olympic Committee snubbed him for the 1972 Olympics, and he suffered through depression, alcoholism and a painkiller addiction after his career was over. He was one of the few Australian medal winners not to be asked to appear at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. He died in 2006 of a heart attack; Smith and Carlos served as pallbearers at his funeral.
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