Fifty years ago today, as the American national anthem began to play during the awards ceremony to honor the winners of the 200-meter Dash at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, American athletes Tommie Smith (gold) and John Carlos (bronze) bowed their heads, took off their shoes, and raised black-gloved fists in a Black Power salute; they wore gloves to represent Black America, and removed their shoes and wore black socks to symbolize the poverty and lack of health care of the African-American community. Smith wore a scarf and Carlos a bead necklace as a reminder of lynching. All three athletes, including the Australian Peter Norman (silver), wore the round patch of the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR), a short-lived (1967-1968) yet significant group in the march for International Racial Equality.
In the United States, as you might imagine, this caused much controversy; it was seen as politicizing the Olympic Games. It remains a symbolic moment in Black History.
As founders of the OPHR, Smith and Carlos originally advocated a boycott of the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games unless four conditions were met: South Africa and Rhodesia to be uninvited from the Olympics, the restoration of Muhammad Ali‘s world heavyweight boxing title, Avery Brundage to step down as president of the International Olympic Committee, and the hiring of more African-American assistant coaches. The boycott failed to achieve support after the IOC withdrew invitations for South Africa and Rhodesia, so the men decided to not only wear their gloves but also go barefoot to protest poverty.
Brundage felt that a political statement had no place in the Olympic Games. In an immediate response to their actions, Smith and Carlos were suspended from the U.S. team and they voluntarily moved out of the Olympic Village. Brundage, who was president of the United States Olympic Committee in 1936, had made no objections against Nazi salutes during the Berlin Olympics.
Smith and Carlos faced consequences for challenging white authority in America. Ralph Boston, an American long jumper at the 1968 games, stated:
“The rest of the world didn’t seem to find it such a derogatory thing. They thought it was very positive. Only America thought it was bad.”
The men’s protest had lingering effects for all three athletes, including death threats against Smith, Carlos and their families. Following their suspension by the U.S. Olympic Committee, they faced real economic hardship.
In 2008, Carlos was a torch-bearer for the Human Rights Torch, which ran in parallel to the 2008 Summer Olympics Torch relay, focusing attention on China’s dismal human rights record. That same year, Carlos and Smith were given the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage for their salute.
In October 2011, Carlos spoke and raised his fist at Occupy Wall Street. He said:
“Today I am here for you. Why? Because I am you. We’re here forty-three years later because there’s a fight still to be won. This day is not for us but for our children to come.”
Norman, the third athlete pictured in a famous photograph from 1968, faced backlash in Australia for his part in the protest, and was not selected for the following 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich despite qualifying. He retired from sports soon after.
At the 1968 Olympics, Smith and Carlos had asked Norman if he believed in Human Rights. He said he did. They asked him if he believed in God. Norman, who came from a Salvation Army background, said he believed strongly in God.
“We knew that what we were going to do was far greater than any athletic feat. He said, ‘I’ll stand with you’. Carlos said he expected to see fear in Norman’s eyes. He didn’t; he saw love.”
It was Norman who suggested that Smith and Carlos share the black gloves used in their salute, after Carlos left his pair at the Olympic Village. This is the reason for Smith raising his right fist, while Carlos raised his left. Carlos said:
“There’s no-one in the nation of Australia that should be honored, recognized, appreciated more than Peter Norman for his humanitarian concerns, his character, his strength and his willingness to be a sacrificial lamb for justice.”
In 1985, Norman contracted gangrene after tearing his Achilles tendon during a charity race. Depression, heavy drinking and pain killer addiction followed. He was taken by heart attack in October 2006 at 64-years-old. 38 years after the three men made history, both Smith and Carlos gave eulogies and were pallbearers at Norman’s funeral.
Smith and Carlos are still with us and they are still activists for Human Rights. Carlos:
“Regardless of what they might have thought about me putting my fist in the air, I love the stars and stripes, but I wanted the stars and stripes to love me.”
Carlos and Smith are still in touch today and have been publicly supportive of other protesting athletes, including Colin Kaepernick.