Turbulence: The 1968 protest heard around the world

Instead of being celebrated for their 1-3 finish in the 200 meters at the 1968 Summer Olympics, Tommie Smith and John Carlos went home with hate riding on their coattails. Instead of receiving a hero’s welcome, both Smith and Carols were sent home as pariahs. All because they had the guts to tell the world they wanted to see a 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, 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.

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.

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

“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 the 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 the other black athletes.

1968 Olympics
Dr. John Carlos appearing at the Lazarus Foundation event in Los Angeles, California. Photo by Dennis J. Freeman/News4usonline

“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,” Evans said. “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.

John Carlos and Tommie Smith
Dr. John Carlos (left) and Dr. Tommie Smith greet each other at the San Jose State University’s Inspiration to Innovation gala in 2018. Photo credit: San Jose State University

“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 about. 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. Some people will question if it ever did.

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.

Tommie Smith, left, and John Carlos pose for a photo in front of the statue that honors their iconic black-gloved protest at the 1968 Summer Olympics. Photo credit: San Jose University

Never mind that peaceful protests by black citizens fighting for 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 year of 1968 would be sure-fire testing of the soul of Black America. It started with the Orangeburg Massacre that took place in South Carolina. From there the freefall of atrocities snowballed into one giant lump of social injustices for Black people.

The rioting, the legal battles waged by heavyweight champion Muhamad Ali trying to get boxing license back, the shootouts with Black Panther Party members, the murders of a civil rights and national icon, and school segregation fights, all help made the Smith and Carlos historical moment 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 his buddies receiving 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.”

Jim Crow laws were dying out but they still had a tight grip on America. With much of the South deep in Jim Crow’s way of life, the battle for equality was a human rights issue. Being a black athlete granted you no immunity from this dilemma.

Smith and Carlos understood this well. So, did other black athletes. That is why there was a contentious divide among black athletes over whether they should come up with a boycott. At the end of the day, they were Americans. But they were black Americans, U.S. citizens living in a time warp of being treated differently simply because they didn’t have the right skin color.

The revolt of black athletes at dozens of major colleges and universities (the University of Oklahoma, University of California at Berkeley, Michigan State, and Princeton among them) in 1968, only solidifies this fact.

Choosing to boycott the Olympics or participate in a protest was a difficult spot for black athletes to be placed in. Equal citizenship or patronizing the country first was the daily dilemma for these men and women. Dr. Kirk Clayton, a card-carrying alum of the San Jose State “Speed City” track team, was down with just staying at home.

At the U.S. Olympic Trials in Echo Summit, California, Clayton placed seventh with a 10.37 time in the 100 meters.

“My thought was, I was going to boycott,” Clayton said in a 2007 interview. “Every man has a story. I decided not to go no matter if I made the team, I wasn’t going because I felt that no one had gone before me and survived and protested and got anything. So, I said why should I go?

“My mother was a big part of me not taking part in the ’68 Olympics because at the time she educated me that we, as blacks, are moving towards a goal, and you can play a very important part in that by protesting as you are trying to do against this country; not negatively, but saying the country can do better, and that’s why I chose not to go to Mexico City.”

Black Americans were still running across vetted blockage at the voting polls despite the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that was passed into law.

Yet it was Smith and Carlos who were being labeled as un-American for their stance for human rights and social justice.

Wyomia Tyus, who established a world record in the 100 meters at the 1968 Summer Games, had empathy for what Smith and Carlos were going through. She decided to dedicate her gold medal win in the women’s 4×100 meter-relay (Wyomia Tyus, Barbara Ferrell, Margaret Bailes, and Mildred Netter) to the men, a very bold and daring thing to do considering the lit atmosphere in and around the Summer Games.

Tyus wanted to show Smith and Carlos she had their backs.

“I think she’s a very strong woman,” Carlos said. “I think she is very a smart woman. She is a kind woman. You couldn’t ask for a better friend.”

At that point, Smith and Carlos needed all the friends they could find. With everyone else going ghost on them, Smith and Carlos found the support of Tyus and other female athletes to be welcoming.

“It was uplifting and downright humbling that they had the courage to give their support,” Carlos said in The John Carlos Story. “It was uplifting because everyone else had run away from us. It was humbling because they were very much shut out of the process of building the OPHR.”

“I had felt over the last year that we should have been doing much more to involve women in the OPHR, but it was like a restricted men’s only club and it was established as such before they brought me on board,” Carlos added. “It made no sense to me. We said we were fighting for all African peoples, but we made no effort to bring our sisters into the fold. The women were shut out.”

Editor’s note: This article is part of News4usonline’s coverage of Olympians leading up to the 2021 Tokyo Olympic Games and is an excerpt  from a forthcoming book about Black history makers written by Dennis J. Freeman 

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