A stand for black justice

The silent gesture by Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Summer Olympics is seen as a cultural symbol of black defiance

American sprinters Tommie Smith, John Carlos and Australian Peter Norman during the award ceremony of the 200-meter race at the 1968 Summer Olympic Games. During the awards ceremony, Smith and Carlos protested against racial discrimination. Smith and Carlos went barefoot on the podium and listened to their anthem bowing their heads and raising a fist with a black glove. Mexico City, Mexico, 1968 Mexico City, Mexico

It has been 50 years since the 1968 Summer Olympics (Oct. 12-Oct. 27) took place in Mexico City, Mexico. But the act of defiance by two black U.S. sprinters still haunts this country’s divided race dilemma. The fight for equality and improving human rights abuses continue to tug at America’s soul.

The Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) was indoctrinated to San Jose State track stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos. Both men were encouraged, as other blacks were, to boycott the 1968 Olympic Games. In 2007, members of San Jose State’s famed “Speed City” track team, including Smith and Lee Evans, recalled at a gathering of the teammates in Culver City, California, the suffering of black Americans during that time and why the boycott was called.

“It is 1968 right now,” said Dr. Kirk Clayton. “I can just look back and see some of things that are still happening to our race, just from the basis of politics, the basic understanding of where the world is going…and the treatment of black people. We’re still being disenfranchised, especially young blacks.”

Photograph facing northeast showing a soldier standing guard on the corner of 7th & N Street NW in Washington D.C. with the ruins of buildings that were destroyed during the riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Warren K. Leffler / Library of Congress

OPHR wanted to bring attention to the unforgiving conditions blacks endured as American citizens. Rumblings of an advocated boycott by black athletes, strongly suggested by OPHR and its controversial and outspoken founder, Dr. Harry Edwards, soon got the ear of the media and Olympic officials.

Some athletes were down with a proposed boycott; others were not. An upheaval by their athletes was the last thing the United States needed to worry about as the Summer Olympics rolled around. The country had enough problems it was dealing with. America wasn’t prepared to deal with the mutiny that OPHR and Edwards pushed for. Social change, however, was imminent.

Black athletes came to the Olympic Games in 1968 shouldering a burden.The burden was segregated laws that exempted blacks from being treated as equal citizens to whites in the United States. Some wondered how they could go abroad and represent a country that treated them worse than a dog’s vomit.

Still, others wanted the opportunity to prove they were more than second-class citizens. The great Jesse Owens was supposed to have knocked that barrier down at the 1936 Olympics when he won four gold medals. But here it was, some 32 years later, and black Americans were still fighting the same equality battle.

President Lyndon B. Johnson meets with Civil Rights leaders Martin Luther King, Jr., Whitney Young, James Farmer. Photo Credit: Yoichi Okamoto

The Civil Rights Movement was in full go mode. The battle to bust up Jim Crow and its unjust racial practices whipped around the country like a coiled snake waiting to strike. For black Americans, it was a time to hit back at a system that had long oppressed them.

Smith and Carlos decided to strike back for them. Their story is well-documented. Following the men’s 200-meter final in which Smith set a world-record, he and Carlos took to the victory stand without their shoes, wearing only black socks. The duo then proceeded to do the unthinkable. Raising their black-gloved fists into Mexico City’s thin air to call attention to the human suffrage that left people at home and abroad emasculated, Smith and Carlos sent a resonating message to International Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage and IOC officials.

“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(or) of people or one color of people,” Smith said. “It was about human rights. The Olympic victory stand was a totality in understanding what the rights of people were. Civil rights is a different story. Civil rights is Rosa Parks. Civil rights is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Civil rights is Malcolm X. Civil rights is those people who fought because the law indicated you have that right. We had to be backed down, be bitten by dogs, with water hoses being turned loose on us. The chemistry of the courts was so strong that we had to die just to get what white folks wrote many, many years ago.”

The year of 1968 was more than a simple turbulent episode of mass confusion and division, perhaps the most riotous time in America’s history. It was a landmark time of what the country was going to look like 50 years later. It was marked by protests, marches, student sit-ins and a prime look at a segregated country.

John Carlos speaking at the Northwest African American Museum in Seattle, Washington in 2011. Photo Credit: Joe Mabel

That division was wedged deeper after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Two months later, America was rife with even more 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 looking at the color of their skin and understand the way they were treated.

“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. It also meant that as a black man, you were representing your country, and also representing your race.”

Dr. Tommie Smith, who won the gold medal in the men’s 200 meters at the 1968 Summer Olympics, speaks during a ceremony honoring the late Dr. Martin Luthern King Jr. in Santa Monica, California. Photo by Dennis J. Freeman for News4usonline

That year epitomized a time where blacks had to deal with ravenous police dogs ordered to tear into their skin with deadly intent. Demonstrators who marched for equality were taken down in a heap from relentless streams of water coming from as firemen and law enforcement’s water hoses.

Those who fought for equality were often beaten, spat on, disappeared, were killed or shunned. The backdrop of the Vietnam War raged on with Americans uniting in growing discontent of the many lives being sacrificed. On the internationally front it would be no different. Right before the Olympics were set to take place, rioting broke out in Mexico City. Hundreds of people were reportedly killed; at least a thousand more were injured. If there was a time to stage a boycott it was now.

Black athletes were split on the issue heading into the Olympics. Eventually, the idea of a massive boycott was scrapped. But that didn’t stop Smith and Carlos from carrying out their plot of black rebellion. The end result of their thinking was a quiet act of black pride; an act that shocked the world without the two men uttering a single word.

By finishing first and third in the men’s 200-meter final, the stage was set for Smith and Carlos to do their thing. On Oct. 16, 1968, as the Star-Spangled Banner was being played, with their medals draped around their necks, Smith and Carlos raised their arms in unison on the victory stand. It was a memorable display of courage, pain, pride and open defiance.

In the last curve of the semi-final Olympic race of men’s 400 meters, the Senegalese Amadou Gakou, in the third lane with number 708, goes in victory over the U.S. Ron Freeman (eighth lane and outside the photo) and the Polish Andrzej Bade?ski (first lane, number 661). Mexico City (Mexico), October 17, 1968. Photo courtesy of Mario De Biasi

In a 2009 interview, Carlos said the controversial move was enthusiastically embraced.

“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 have been done to us. We’re still having atrocities taking place. We’re still dealing with civil rights and human rights issues today.’”

Smith and Carlos, however, knew there was a price to be paid. The fallout was swift and decisive. To IOC 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 two 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 loss of livelihood, contempt as well as scorn from their fellow Americans.

Carlos went through a myriad of issues because of his part in the silent protest. Financially and emotionally, Carlos was taxed to the limit. He had to deal with the prospect of his kids being taunted by teachers. Steady employment, after a brief professional football career, became unsustainable for a while.

Compounding matters is the fact Carlos’ first wife, Kim, committed suicide as an indirect result of the problems the couple had to face after the protest. Carlos said he would never again advocate for a political stand at the Olympics.

“I would never condone an Olympic boycott ever again in my life,” Carlos said. “The Olympic boycotts strengthened, wounded and scarred so many athletes. Those who were involved in the 1968 potential boycott, I don’t think anybody ever fully recovered. I don’t think any athletes have fully recovered from any boycotts or attempted boycotts. It’s a part of their life that is being taken away. And a scar like that doesn’t heal.”

Dennis J. Freeman
About Dennis J. Freeman 1227 Articles
Dennis is a longtime sports, news and entertainment photojournalist. Dennis has covered and written on subjects such as civil rights, politics, and social justice. His work has appeared in various publications across the country. As editor and publisher of News4usonline, he currently covers the NFL (Rams, Chargers), NBA (Clippers, Lakers), Major League Baseball (Dodgers) and NCAA sports (USC, UCLA, Long Beach State). Dennis is a proud alum of Howard University.