LOS ANGELES-Fifty years ago, Dr. Tommie Smith and Dr. John Carlos defied Olympic referendum and rebuked their homeland with the greatest single socially conscious moment in sports history when they bowed their heads and lifted their fists to the sky in a black-gloved salute, stilling the Mexico City, Mexico air.
The silent gesture, as Smith calls the moment, sent waves of shock throughout the Olympics and put the world on notice of the fracturing relationships between blacks living in America. The civil rights movement was in full throttle mode when Smith and Carlos made their historic stance. Black athletes were as just much as part of the social pushback against Jim Crow policies, practiced discrimination and outright bigotry as other African Americans.
Being asked to represent a country that regarded them lower than scrap heat was too much to ask for some athletes. For Smith and Carlos, the 1968 Olympics would prove to be their calling card to history. Fifty years later, a new generation of athletes have taken up the social conscious mantle that Smith, Carlos and others have passed down to them.
“Based on what we did fifty years ago, we were like horticultures or gardeners. We tilled the earth,” Carlos said. “We planted the seeds. We watered it. Fifty years later, what you see is the fruit of our labor.”
When it comes to the “woke” athlete, Carlos, would have to be considered at the top of the list. Muhammad Ali might be in front of that line. That’s the whole point of the Athletes for Impact Awards; celebrating and honoring the conscious athlete, those who dare to defy boundaries for the cause of social change. The NFL’s national anthem protests and high-profile shooting of unarmed black men have sparked the outcry of social activism among many professional and collegiate athletes, most notably former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
At the home of the LA84 Foundation, a handful of noted Olympians and professional athletes came together to pay tribute to those who have raised their voices for change in their own way. Carlos, the 200-meter silver medalist at the 1968 Olympics, is known around the world for the unforgettable Black Power salute that he and Smith, his San Jose State teammate, executed on the medal stand.
Ali, of course, made his case to not fight in the Vietnam War a public affair that saw the three-time heavyweight boxing champion being stripped of his title and become one of the headliners in the fight for civil rights. It is because of the actions of sports and civil rights icons like Smith, Carlos, Ali and others, that the spirit of the Athletes for Impact Awards was born.
Ali’s daughter, Laila Ali, a championship boxer herself, has followed in her father’s footsteps when it comes to using her celebrity platform that she has to talk about issues that might make some people uncomfortable.
“I’m happy to be part of this event because I’m always wondering what more can I do,” said Ali. “When you come together with other people and other people who care that’s when you can come up with solutions. To me, it’s starts in the household and then no matter what platform you have, whether it’s in the community or the neighborhood kids or on a bigger level, like athletes and entertainers, we all need to be doing our part. We can’t ever expect people to be a Muhammad Ali. Not everyone has that in them to do that.”
Tennessee State Tigerbelle legend Wyomia Tyus is the complete opposite of Muhammad Ali. Unlike the in-your-face showmanship and boastful rhetoric of Ali, Tyus has never been one to put herself out in the front of everyone else. The USA Track & Field Hall of Fame sprinter enjoys the low-key approach to life and being out of the spotlight. But what she achieved on the track as one of the greatest American sprinters ever, is not something that can keep her in that place.
Tyus, who received the Dr. John Carlos Legacy Award, is not a household name. She should be. In case you missed the memo, before Usain Bolt came along and entrenched his name in the Olympics record books, Tyus, a Georgia native and longtime Los Angeles resident, have the Jamaican beat by a couple of decades with her accomplishments. Tyus is the first person-man or woman- to win the 100 meters in back-to-back Olympics. Tyus achieved this feat way before Bolt was even born, winning the short sprint at the 1964 and 1968 Olympics.
Yet, history has not been kind to her as she has to live in the shadows of the great Wilma Rudolph. Besides her remarkable feat, Tyus and the rest of the United States women 4×100 relay at the 1968 Olympics, dedicated their gold medal to Carlos and Smith.
“It’s great to be honored,” Tyus said. “All of us, every single human being should feel they can make changes, otherwise the world stays the same, and we definitely don’t want that. Athletes have a bigger platform and they can make a bigger statement, those that want to.”
That platform for Tyus includes being on the frontline for women’s rights and making equality a relevant aspect in all sports, something she did behind-the-scenes during her athletic career. Equipped with a book about her life, “Tigerbelle: The Wyomia Tyus Story,” Tyus said she is paying it forward with her acknowledge of those who paved the way for her. “It is about a group of black women at Tennessee State that made me who I am today,” said Tyus. “They gave me the encouragement and the wisdom and the knowledge and everything to go out and not only be a runner, but to get a college education and speak up for what you want.”
With the week being the biggest week in sports with the celebrated ESPYS, The Athletes for Impact Awards, which took place Monday, July 16, 2018 in Los Angeles, and was presented by the Wasserman Foundation, kicked off its inaugural run with several notable and powerful names besides Carlos and Ali. Among those in attendance were world champion figure skater Tai Babilonia, NFL star Michael Bennett and Olympian fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad.
Muhammad became the first Muslim American to win a medal at the Olympics, taking home the bronze in the saber fencing event in 2016. She’s also a very fluid activist who uses her spotlight as a cultural (African American) and faith (Muslim) icon to move the chains when it comes to championing social causes.
“I’m excited to partner with great athletes like Dr. John Carlos, Maya Moore, Michael Bennett, athletes that I have always looked up to and that I’ve been able to find inspiration in some of my darkest moments as an athlete,” Muhammad said. “I hope that together, we can more than what we’ve been able to do as individuals.”
With more and more athletes becoming bolder in speaking out on social causes, the backlash from haters have come from all pockets of society, including from the media. When Fox News host Laura Ingraham told LeBron James to “shut up and dribble” after the NBA superstar dropped criticism of President Donald Trump, that set off a euphoria of across the table discussions on whether athletes should stick to sports and be quiet when it comes to societal issues or stand up for what they believe in. That’s not a matter that’s really up for any type of conversation as far as Muhammad is concerned.
“I’m African American. I don’t feel like we have a choice in this,” said Muhammad. “It’s our fight and we have way too many historic examples and predecessors that have come before us that have showed us what we need to do with the platform that we’ve been given.”