The Black Power Salute in 1968: Still a Priceless Moment

Tommie Smith (center) and John Carlos (right) unify at the 1968 Olympics./Photo courtesy of Tommie Smith

By Dennis J. Freeman

Tommie Smith has given up his gold medal and track cleats to the highest bidder. Perhaps it is a sign that the gold medal winner in the 200 meters at the 1968 Olympics has given up on the fight he once stood for as he, and fellow Olympian John Carlos, bowed their heads on the victory stand and lifted a lone black gloved fist to the sky to rebuke the inequalities African Americans suffered on their own homeland.

Perhaps it is not. Perhaps Smith, now 66, has simply grown tired of people profiting off of the Black Power salute that at one time left both he and Carlos in the bottom tier of living, ostracized from society and demonized as if they were lepers.

It’s been 42 years since that mid-October day when Smith and Carlos went to the victory podium and made their statement against black oppression, black injustice, Jim Crow segregation, and the mistreatment and the mis-education of black folks in general in the United States.  

Smith, Carlos and other black athletes were asked to represent their country-the United States-at the Olympics.

Yet back home, conditions of inequalities wore on blacks who still had to march to For Coloreds Only signs if they wanted to eat, drink or dine in public.

Revolt was clearly in the air. Smith and Carlos took it to the next level. Their actions reverberate still today.

Smith and Carlos came to the Mexico City Olympics with the intent of making some sort of statement. They had a point to prove. That statement is still being felt today. The ramifications of what Carlos and Smith did still causes a haunting echo on this country’s divided race relations, on equality and human rights abuses that continue to tug at America’s soul.

The duo then made the most electric political stand in Olympic history, raising their black-gloved fists into Mexico City’s thin air to call attention to black and human suffrage.

“The victory stand in 1968 with the silent gesture was heard around the world because it was a human gesture, not a secular gesture identifying one sect of people or one color of people,” Smith said in a 2007 interview. “It was about human rights. The Olympic victory stand was a totality in understanding what the rights of people were.”

Build up to the Moment

That particular year was a turbulent episode of mass confusion and division, perhaps the most riotous year in America’s history. It was marked by protests, marches, student sit-ins and a prime look at a segregated country, divided by race.  That division was wedged deeper after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Two months later, Americawas rife with pandemonium when presidential candidate Sen. Robert Kennedy was gunned down in the lobby of a hotel in Los Angeles. Anxiety and fear among Americans began to reign.  And being in athletics did not give African Americans a reprieve from their skin color.

“As black athletes, we always had to go out and prove ourselves,” said sprinter Jim Hines, who set a new standard in the 100 meters at the ’68 Olympics, winning the coveted race in world-record time of 9.95.

“With the racial tension going on-with the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Kennedy’s and everything that represented Black leadership, it was very, very important for us to go to the Olympics and to be a great success. When you win a gold medal that means you’re the best in the world-the best in the world as a person and as a black man, representing your country, and also representing your race.”

In a 2009 interview, Carlos said the controversial move he and Smith exercised in was enthusiastically embraced by those who identified with their plight.

“Those who were oppressed were relieved, were honored and were excited about what we had done on that victory stand,” Carlos said. “In essence, that was a sedative for the pain that they have had to endure for the duration of time.”

“It was a sedative for them to say, ‘Thank God! Somebody got up and let the world know how we felt as Black people, how we felt as people of color for the injustices that has been done to us. We’re still having atrocities taking place. We’re still dealing with civil rights and human rights issues today.’”

Fallout

However, Smith and Carlos knew there was a price to be paid for their famed black-gloved, clenched-fist, Black Panther-like stance. The fallout was swift and decisive. To officials, the Olympic Games had been politically marred by Smith’s and Carlos’ actions. They hammered out judgment immediately, calling for the removal of the U.S. runners from the Olympic Village.

Both men were sent packing on a plane back to the U.S.  They would find very little comfort once they hit American soil. The backlash to their stand in Mexico City was met with death threats, the lost of their professional and personal livelihoods and contempt from the school they once represented. But this wasn’t just about Smith and Carlos. It about a group of people; it was about human suffrage.

Other black athletes on the United States Olympic team struggled with the idea of showing some sort uniformity in protesting the servitude conditions they knew awaited them when got back home.  Lee Evans, who set a then-world record in the 400-meters, said he felt compelled to do something. And he did, wearing a black beret on the victory stand.

“All of our hearts were in the same place; we did different things to protest, but all of our hearts were in the same place,” Evans said in an interview three year ago. “We had to do something. Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King said don’t stand over there and watch everybody else, get involved. Do something. We were athletes… so we felt compelled to do something. We fought for the freedom of our people. “

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