It’s always good to have someone in your corner who is going to look out for you, no matter the situation. In the darkest hour of their young lives, Wyomia Tyus and her 1968 U.S. gold-winning 4×100 relay teammates looked out for Tommie Smith and John Carlos in what would be a very chaotic time for the young track and field stars.
After all the ruckus surrounding their silent protest on the victory stand, which eventually left them being ousted from the Olympic Village and being treated as social pariahs, Smith and Carlos ran out of goodwill karma with just about everybody.
Instead of being celebrated for their 1-3 finish in the 200 meters at the 1968 Summer Games, Smith and Carlos went home with hate riding on their coattails. All because they had the guts to tell the world they wanted to see change from the country they represented at the Summer Games.
They received no justice. They got no peace.
“You’d think I committed murder,” Smith was quoted as telling legendary broadcaster Howard Cosell, according to Richard Hoffer, author of “Something in the Air.”
“No one had any idea what Mr. Smith and I was going to do that day but God,” said Carlos.
If the anticipation of something possibly going down in Mexico City, Mexico, in the form of a mutiny by American black athletes, occupied worrisome space by the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC), that fear came to a head Oct. 16, 1968.
Smith and Carlos had just provided the match to an already smoldering barn fire. Repercussions would be coming forth. A steep price was going to be paid by both men. But Smith, in a 2007 interview, said he didn’t concern himself about what was going to happen next.
“I didn’t worry too much about the aftermath only that I had a force bigger than I that could get me to where I needed to go-not where I wanted to go, but where I needed to go,” Smith said. “I needed to win that 1968 race to get on that victory stand. There was a force bigger than you and I that helped me along the way because it was a non-secular attitude that got me there, a non-secular attitude that put me on the victory stand and a non-secular attitude that saved me and my soul from the perils of ignorance in this system. That’s where I come from. I don’t worry about human doctrine.”
The atmosphere at Olympic Village was hot and heavy even before Smith and Carlos walked off the podium with gold and bronze medals following their human rights stance.
The International Olympics Committee (IOC) was so worried about the possibility of a boycott staged by the Americans that they dispatched the great Jesse Owens to meet Smith and Carlos and to calm the restless natives from making any preemptive political action.
That interaction didn’t go down particularly well for the 1936 Olympics hero.
“Jesse was confused as far as I’m concerned,” Lee Evans is quoted as saying in “What’s My Name, Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States.” “The USOC (United States Olympics Committee) dogged him, and he knew they dogged him.”
Evans, who set a world record in the 400 meters two days after Smith and Carlos sent Mexico City into a hurried frenzy, splashed down with a winning time of 43.8 seconds to smoke the rest of the field. The gold medalist made it clear he wasn’t overly empathetic towards Owens with the way the USOC used him to get at Smith and Carlos and other black athletes.
“Treating him badly after his exploits in the [Berlin] Olympic games when he ran [and won four gold medals]. He came back, didn’t have a job, was racing horses for money. We were really annoyed with him because he knew what we were going through, yet he pretended that it didn’t exist, and that just blew our minds when he called a meeting with us in Mexico City.”
“I thought he called this meeting because Avery Brundage sent him there,” Evans added. “Jesse Owens was sitting on the fifty-yard line with all the important people of the world, the royalties, the Avery Brundages. They have a special section where they sit in the games, right at the fifty-yard line, and Jesse-that’s where he was sitting. He thought he was one of them. He had forgot that he was once an athlete struggling like we were. So, he came and talked to us like he was Avery Brundage or the King of England or somebody, and really talking stupid to us, and we just shouted him out of the room.”
Carlos, in his book The John Carlos Story, expressed disappointment that he and some of his teammates felt when Owens tried unsuccessfully to sway the black athletes from doing anything that would bring dishonor to the United States.
“I could see why it shocked my teammates to see Jesse coming out so strongly against us. The IOC, led by Avery Brundage, had scorned and shunned Jesse for decades for the crime of being a black superstar,” Carlos said. “They didn’t even let Jesse back in the stadiums or put him in front of a microphone until we started talking smack about our boycott in 1966. That’s thirty years later. Then the IOC took Jesse, put a suit on him, stuffed some money in his pocket, and told him, We want you to be the voice of the good black American. The next thing you knew, Jesse was in our locker room saying to us, Hey, the greatest thing is to represent the United States in the Olympic Games.’”
Some of the athletes weren’t just incredulous at Owens’ American patriotic first pitch. They were downright furious that the four-time gold medal winner at the 1936 Berlin Olympics would allow himself to be used as a tokenism foil against them, Carlos said.
“I know that some of the guys saved a special kind of hostility for him. Lee Evans wasn’t the only person calling him an Uncle Tom,” Carlos is quoted as saying in The John Carlos Story.
“I know this hurt Jesse terribly because he felt like he was a black man too,” Carlos added. “To be scorned by your own in the sport that you love so much, I’m sure that it was like a blade in his heart. But he had no real sway over us. His efforts to move us politically were in a different language from what the rest of us were talking. It sounded like there wasn’t any time when Jesse tried to say anything other than what they handed him on a script. He would be in the locker room haranguing us to find our patriotic souls and give up the thought of making any kind of statement.”
After Smith and Carlos made their victory stand demonstration, the backlash began immediately. Smith and Carlos felt the disdain and hate from just about every angle. The media led the way with the all-out bashing of Smith and Carlos. This is excellently portrayed by Sarah Jackson in her book, “Black Celebrity, Racial Politics, and the Press: Framing Dissent.”
What Jackson does is uncover one layer after another of examples of wordsmith lynching’s of Smith and Carlos by mainstream news publications. Jim Murray, the celebrated sportswriter for the Los Angeles Times wrote, “We may get our next Hitler out of Lane 4.”
A Chicago Tribune editorial went a step further with their harsh critique of Smith and Carlos’ actions, linking the two to extremism. “Unfortunately, when these renegades come home, they will probably be greeted as heroes by fellow extremists,” part of the Tribune editorial went.
New York Times writer Arthur Daley decided to go AWOL on Smith and Carlos by writing that the duo had a “defiant refusal to look at the American flag while it was being raised.” These are just a few of the hateful rhetoric that was spewed by the media that Jackson illustrates in her well-documented literature.
All of this makes you wonder about the hypocrisy America was governed by. The land of the free and home of the brave reference in America’s hallmark song Star Bangled Banner did not apply to black people. Segregationist Jim Crow laws reinforced that thought process.
The very public arm wrestling battle of state rights going against federal rule centered on the equal treatment of African Americans. Never mind that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been murdered earlier that year by a hateful white assassin. Never mind that at least 120 American cities burned with thirsty revenge following King’s death.
Never mind that peaceful protests by black citizens fighting for an equal space in America turned into violent clashes with law enforcement. Being attacked by police dogs and getting drenched by firemen water hoses, oftentimes permeated the totality resistance of blacks being equal to whites.
The “Bloody Sunday” obliteration of black lives as they marched in peaceful protest in Selma, Alabama, in 1965, and the Orangeburg Massacre that took place in South Carolina in 1968, are just two of the many examples of the burdensome risks blacks took in making demands to be treated as equals in the eyes of the law.
It was episodes like “Bloody Sunday” and the unforgettable Selma march, years of disparagement and human degradation that cascaded into a riotous atmosphere in America before the Olympics even took place. The timing of Smith and Carlos’ freedom salute was more than coincidental.
But the societal buildup to their demonstration was simply impossible to ignore. The rioting, the legal battles waged by heavyweight champion Muhamad Ali in trying to get boxing license back, the shootouts with Black Panther Party members, the murders of civil rights leaders, and school segregation fights, all made this a head-on collision waiting to happen.
Despite President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act of 1968 into law a week after King’s murder, the gesture was almost like putting a band-aid over a shotgun wound. So, by the time Smith and Carlos made their statement on the victory stand, the United States was firmly entrenched in all-out racial warfare against its black citizens. Evans, a charter member of the Olympic Project for Human Rights Project (OPHR) and a teammate of Smith and Carlos at San Jose State, had the unnerved fortune of running his 400-meter race the next day.
Even though he went out and set a world record in that race, Evans felt the angst of Carlos and Smith’s haters by way of routine death threats.
“It was fantastic, Evans said in a 2007 interview. “It was life or death many times. We were always getting threats against on our life. We were nothing but 19, 20, 21 years old…We were kids. (John Birch Society, Ku Klux Klan, The Rifle Association, White Angeles), people threatening our lives all the time. It was dangerous for us personality. It was stressful. I said, ‘If they don’t kill me, I’m going to get to that finish line first.’ They inspired me. All that hate mail…it inspired me. We went through the fire.”
This article is an excerpt from the chapter “Turbulence” of a forthcoming book written by Dennis J. Freeman on the life and achievements of the Tennessee State Tigerbelles