John Carlos and Tommie Smith: Defiance at the Olympics

(News4usonline) – Decisions have consequences. Sometimes going against the system can come with a cost. For United States sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the price they would pay for their human rights demonstration on the victory stand at the 1968 Olympics, would be steep.  

There were decades of public scorn and self-imprisonment. Death threats and ridicule came with the package. For a long while, employment opportunities meant washing cars and chasing a buck by any means necessary.   

Winning gold and bronze medals in the men’s 200 meters at the ’68 Summer Games should have earned Smith and Carlos high praise and plenty of endorsement opportunities. Instead, Smith and Carlos instantly became the most hated men in America after bringing attention to the plight of their fellow Black Americans with their daring act.     

Suicide, divorce, societal backlash, along with intimate pain and suffering, are still some of the scars that have graced the two men over the years.

1968 Olympics
Dr. Tommie Smith, speaking to an audience at the Santa Monica World Peace Ikeda Auditorium on Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday, Jan. 15, 2018, re-enacts the gloved-fist, Black Power salute that he and Dr. John Carlos exhibited at the 1968 Olympics. Photo by Dennis J. Freeman/News4usonline

No one, except God and the men themselves and their families truly know the harsh realities they have had to endure for what they thought was the right thing to do.

Yet when they both reflect on that October 16, 1968 evening when they both stood on the podium shoeless and with their raised fists do not regret the stance for humanity that they took.

Largely seen as a symbolic gesture for Black unification, Smith and Carlos would make the argument that they did what they did for the sake of all those oppressed and being denied the opportunity of being treated equally.

But as Black men representing a country at that time being heavily mired in the Vietnam War and going through a tumultuous time of racial upheaval and social identification, Smith and Carlos weren’t seen as a couple of benevolent beings looking out for the good of people.

Smith and Carlos were viewed as troublemakers, a couple of guys rudely disrupting the spirit of the Olympic Games and blatantly disrespecting the very country they said they represented.   

If there was one word to describe 1968 it be chaos. That might be an understatement.  That is due because the sesmic tide of unrest had hit all sectors of society, including in sports. Black athletes had as much say about what was going as much as anyone else. America had reached a boiling point in race relations. Things were hot and getting heavy.

The spillover took place at the Olympics. The tilt for justice and equality for Black Americans played out in courtrooms and spilled out into the streets.

Dr. John Carlos
USTA Hall of Famer Dr. John Carlos attending the San Jose State University’s Inspiration to Innovation Gala 2018 at the Events Center on the campus of San Jose State University on Thursday, Oct. 18, 2018, in San Jose, Calif. ( Josie Lepe/San Jose State University )

The sacred cushion of the athletic field became infiltrated as well. In the middle of all the cross-burnings, church bombings, riots, police dog attacks, sit-in protests, marches, assassinations and ballot box opposition, Black athletes were finding their collective voices on the things that mattered to them.

There was no better example of this than when Smith and Carlos punched a hole in the thin air of Mexico City, Mexico, their black-gloved fists silently doing all of the talking for all of those living under the umbrella of suffrage.

Smith likened his Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics to that of a “spiritual awakening.”

That might also can be applied to the 1968 U. S. Olympic track and field team, arguably the greatest assembly of American track and field talent ever. Smith and Carlos, with multiple world records between them, proved they belonged with their first and third place showing in the 200 meters.   

American and world records in an array of field and track events were erased and new standards were established. Led by the great middle-distance runner Madeline Manning, the only American woman to win the 800 meters in the history of the Olympics, the Tennessee State Tigerbelles claimed several of those marks.  

It’s too bad that all that greatness got swallowed up by the headlines and news cycle following on the trail of the most provocative social justice stance ever recorded. Smith and Carlos didn’t start a revolution with their undeniable rebuke to America’s separatist societal tier system.

But they did help put into display the great racial divide that we call the United States. Black athletes didn’t stop being Black just because they could run to the tape in the 100 meters faster than anyone else.

Much like the Black veteran who served his country in World War II or in the seemingly endless Vietnam War, Black athletes looked down the same barrel of oppression and Jim Crow speed bumps as their brethren. 

1968 Olympics
Dr. Tommie Smith established a world record when he won the men’s 200 meters at the 1968 Olympics. Photo by Dennis J. Freeman/News4usonline

The way things were looking for African Americans during the 1960s, angst and uncertainty dwelled in the soul of the black athlete. Freedom would come at a cost. This period was a time to stand up and be counted.  You were either going to be part of the problem or be part of the solution.

Dr. Harry Edwards wanted Black athletes to be part of the solution. So, he began coaching them, prodding them along in the art of understanding the resistance movement. Smith, Carlos and the great Lee Evans, were his chief pupils.

Neither men gave one iota to what some would consider a blasphemous act. Airing America’s dirty laundry in front of the world was a no-no. But the United States’ systemic oppression of Black Americans, from slavery to lynchings to suppression of voting opportunities to whole towns burned to ashes or even being acknowledged as citizens, was a lot more vile and complicated than washing a pair of jeans.

Black athletes were propped up for decades on the international stage to represent the best America had to offer, but when they returned home they had to go back to the order of second-class citizenship.         

There were very little perks of being a Black athlete. No matter how fast they ran or how high they jumped, black athletes were still treated with the same repugnant atrocities as their brethren not equipped to perform on the athletic field.

The great Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals and all at the 1936 Olympics, was eventually reduced to racing horses in order to make money.   

The Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) came into play to change this kind of mockery. And OPHR started its play into the sports world calling on Black athletes to boycott the 1968 Olympic Games. The idea for Black athletes to engage in a civil disobedience act to rebut America’s oppressive ways had already been years in the making. This was not anything new.

What was new was that those athletes finally had a fearless champion to help them push their message of equal treatment and fairness. Not everyone drunk the Kool-Aid. Edwards was considered to a rebel-rouser, an unapologetic trouble-maker with radicalism ideas.  

OPHR’s end goal was to call out and bring attention to the repudiated separatist conditions blacks endured as American citizens. OPHR’s call to order was simple and basic human rights afforded to all Americans, not just white citizens.  

1968 Olympian John Carlos
Dr. John Carlos (third from right) was the man of the hour at the inaugural Athletes for Impact Awards on Monday, July 16, 2018. Photo by Dennis J. Freeman for News4usonline

Murmurs and rumblings of the advocated boycott by Black athletes, strongly suggested by OPHR and Edwards, soon got the ear of the media and Olympic officials. Some athletes were in agreement with a proposed boycott; others were not.

A quiet mutiny was knocking on the door. But such an upheaval was the last thing the United States needed. The country was in absolute turmoil. The country simply was not prepared to deal with the type of racial mutiny that OPHR and Edwards pushed for. The need for radical social change, however, was imminent.

Black athletes came to the 1968 Olympics carrying an unwanted burden. It was a load of trying to survive from the racist, segregated laws that exempted Blacks from being treated equally as their white peers.

In fact, it may have been a heavier weight for Black athletes at that time because they had to go out, smile and represent a country that showed them the door as second-class citizens.

The divided color lines were continuously filled with animosity, hate, discrimination and cruel acts of violence on a daily basis. Jim Crow was never more evident than or as powerful as it was during the restless 60s.

John Carlos and Tommie Smith
Dr. John Carlos (left) and Dr. Tommie Smith finished first and third in the men’s 200 meters at the 1968 Summer Olympics. The two men later engaged in a human rights demonstration on the victory stand which resulted in the pair being sent back home immediately. Carlos and Smith are now revered for the stance they took in Mexico City, Mexico. Photo credit: San Jose State University

By 1968 the nonviolent message of the civil rights movement was slowly withering away. The call to Black militancy had surfaced and became a movement that some African Americans readily accepted and enthusiastically embraced.

Black figureheads such as Stokely Carmichael invoked the type of confrontation that went against the grain of being the good and passive Negro to a rebellious stance that stoked racial fires.

The Black Panther Party, co-founded by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, flamed those fires even further with their often-viewed radical stance.

Formed in 1966 amid the grid and grime of the tough streets in east Oakland, the Black Panthers were just a heartbeat of a drive away from San Jose where Edwards was laying out his anti-establishment philosophy to the likes of Smith, Carlos and Evans.

Putting more logs on an already smoldering fire, Newton was convicted of voluntary manslaughter in the death of a police officer just a month away from when Smith and Carlos riveted the international stage with their posture.

Perhaps egging on more resistance from Smith, Carlos and others were the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Sen. Bobby Kennedy as well as an open shootout between law enforcement and the Black Panther Party that same year. The Tlatelolco Massacre, which took place days before the Olympics, added more fuel to address human rights oppression.

And so Carlos and Smith took what was wrong in society and tried to capsuled in one powerful and unforgettable moment. They were just a couple of young men who altered the course of history with a courageous act of defiance.

Dennis J. Freeman

Dennis is the editor and publisher of News4usonline. He is also the publisher and editor of the Compton Bulletin newspaper. Dennis has more than two decades of reporting experience. His beats include covering sports, social and racial justice, and equal rights. He earned a journalism degree from Howard University. "I write what I'm passionate about."