The Defiant Gesture 40 Years Later

The Defiant Gesture 40 Years LaterOn Friday, the Olympics unveiled the official posters of the Beijing 2008 Olympic and Paralympic Games set to begin at the end of July. The artists did a beautiful job. The posters are available for all to see on the official Beijing Olympic website, posted right beneath the official Olympic slogan “One World One Dream.”

Coincidently, also on Friday, I attended a talk in Los Angeles given by Dr. Tommie Smith who, 40 years ago, made that famous gesture at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. He and John Carlos were the two Americans who medaled in the 200-meter race, with Smith winning the gold and Carlos the bronze (the silver was won by Australian Peter Norman ). Each raised black-gloved fists during the playing of the U.S. national anthem, a gesture that forever changed their lives.

The immortal image of these two Americans is one of my earliest memories. Seeing their images on television in 1968 marked the beginning of my awakening. The stand they took helped me to realize that adults were not oblivious to the injustices I was just becoming aware of around me. The America I was learning about in my 4th grade text books was not the America I was seeing in the projects where I lived. As a young girl in the Bronx, I was beginning to realize that there is more than one America. But Smith and Carlos sent a message to the ghetto that said, we don’t have to remain silent.

So, recently, when I discovered that Dr. Smith was speaking at the Urban Issues Forum, I had to be there.

The Fastest Man in the World
Now 64, Tommie Smith participated in the 68 Olympics when he was 24-years old. In his book, Silent Gesture, he gives insight into the events that lead to that momentous day in American and world history. He began his talk by telling the audience, “I’m just a man. A regular ol’ country boy from Texas.”

But there was nothing regular about the sacrifice he and John Carlos made back in 1968. As he spoke, he gave the audience bits of his story, the story of a boy who was one of 12 children born to sharecropper parents in Texas. He told how he, his siblings, and parents worked from dawn til midnight just to eat, while the absentee landowner prospered on the backs of their labor. In the early 50s, Smith’s father moved the family to Central California to try to give them a better life.

Eventually, Tommie Smith would become known as the “fastest man in the world” – at one time holding 11 world records simultaneously. You might expect this to be a rages-to-riches story. Unfortunately, it isn’t.

When Smith and Carlos raised their fists on that day in October 1968, they were rendered personae non gratae in the eyes of the establishment. They had committed the ultimate sin — airing America’s dirty laundry before the world. There would be no Wheaties cereal box covers in their futures. They’d be lucky if they weren’t killed. Smith told the audience, who had assembled at the California African-American Museum, of his fear of being shot. That fear stayed with him for more than a decade.

His concerns had a basis in truth. They were rooted in a history that repeatedly reminds black men that they are members of a unique group of Americans—a group whose individual members are regularly portrayed as dangerous and scary but, in fact, who are the most vulnerable and least safe in America. The ‘68 Olympics were held just months after the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In Texas, Smith was raised in a setting where lynchings were a fact of life deep into the 20th Century. Often they were discussed in hushed tones by adults when they thought their children were asleep. These young men—Smith and Carlos and others like them—had legitimate reasons to fear for their lives.

So, Was It Worth It?
During the question-and-answer session after Dr. Smith finished his talk, I watched and listened as black people, most of which were younger than I, talked to Smith about the impact the image had on their lives. They could not have been old enough to remember the event. But since 1968, the image has taken on a life of its own, continuing to inspire and motivate the generation born after 1968.

tommie_smith.jpgI should know. I have reflected on the image at various times of difficulty throughout my own life. Each time I’ve come across it, I am reminded of the sacrifices, both known and unknown, made by people who didn’t even know me so that I could have a better life.

After the ’68 Olympics, Smith had difficulty earning a living. Finally he was able to establish himself at Santa Monica College where he had long career as coach, athletic director, and educator.

Unlike the 1968 Games, the announcement of the location of the 2008 Olympic Games sparked an onslaught of protest from a broad cross section of groups in the West. Based on accusations of various human rights violations—including state-sanctioned torture of political prisoners, use of the death penalty for crimes that don’t involve loss of life, forced abortions, religious persecution, and others—these groups have mounted a campaign to bring attention to these atrocities.

Some argue that the Olympic Games shouldn’t be used in this way. But Smith says, “If this is not the place, then where is the place?” Where is the place where the oppressed can say to the world “look at what is being done here.” Major improvements in the lives of oppressed groups have often occurred when their governments have been shamed into making change.

The decision Smith and Carlos made in 1968 took a toll on their lives, as they knew it would. John Carlos’ wife committed suicide in part because of the pressure placed on her family in the aftermath of her husband’s symbolic act. Even now, I am struck by the lack of mention of Smith and Carlos on the 2008 Official Beijing Olympic website with its extensive photo gallery dating back to the 1920 Antwerp Games. But their salute and the image it immortalized is nowhere to be found.

I’m reminded daily that we still have a long way to go. In researching this article, I happened upon a movie trailer entitled, Salute — The Movie. I was delighted to discover that a movie depicting the details of the events leading up to that momentous day in 1968 was produced for a 2008 release. I encourage you to take a look at it. After you have viewed it, please drop me a note with your thoughts.

The Olympic Games are one of the largest media events in the world. I, for one, will be watching as Beijing is cast into the spotlight. Let’s hope, for the people of Tibet, Darfur, and Inner Mongolia, that they have a moment when the whole world pays attention to what is happening there.

sharon-kyle.gifSharon Kyle is the Publisher of the LA Progressive. With her husband Dick, she publishes several other print and online newsletters on political and social justice issues. She can be reached at dick_and_sharon@laprogressive.com.

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Comments

  1. al williams says

    I remember that olympic as if it was yesterday being a track and field buff..there was something else that came out of those games that may not have been noticed and that was the way George Forman paraded around the ring after his fight waving two American Flags..nothing against him but I saw a contrast in the way America rewards obedience verses so called defiance..big George have not miss a beat with his earning potentials..he was and still is one of the few Blacks who came out of those games with his future in tact..they would let him fight until he is 65 if he chose to do so..I recently saw those great Men at the ESPY awards..I teared up all over again..great article thanks… Al Williams

  2. says

    Ed,

    Thanks for the comment. There were quite a few young people at Tommie Smith’s talk. But, later that day I asked my step-daughter, who is 14, if she knew about Smith and Carlos and she did not. Of course that was the perfect opportunity for me to tell her.

    I also asked my 32 yr old son. He knew about the controversy. But, I’m with you, I wonder how much of this valuable information is being passed on to the next generation.

    By the way, it’s good to hear from you.

    Sharon Kyle

  3. says

    David,

    Thanks for the comment. I know you are right. I wish we all had a fraction of the courage Smith and Carlos had, then we wouldn’t have to worry about having something to lose. They couldn’t take us all on.

  4. Ed Henson says

    Sharon, excellent article I remember well that poignant moment in 1968 endeared forever in my mind. While watching on TV a chill went up my spine, then tears welled up in my eyes. For I knew in that moment Tommie Smith and Juan Carlos made that gesture for oppressed people everywhere. Tommie Smith and Juan Carlos were honored at the Epsy awards on Friday. While watching the telecast on Sunday night, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the young athletes in attendance truly realized the sacrifice mad by Smith and Carlos on that memorable day in 1968.

  5. Dorinda Moreno says

    Sharon, appreciate LA Progressive and your and Dick’s work. Every publication has something special and this issue on Tommie Smith and Juan Carlos brings poignant memories of a lifetime of friendships formed in Mexico during this cornerstone of history and lasting to date. During this time, I was part of a series of delegations in curriculum development with educators doing research and meeting scholars, artists, advocates– associations with the university of UNAM, Colegio de Anthroplogia e Historia, and associated institutes of learning– with the famed theatre group Los Mascarones, counterpart to El Teatro Campesino. And, this act of solidarity is the singular event that marked and changed a Mexico of the past, to one of the present panorama of resistance that is relived in Chiapas, Oaxaca, and other parts of the country.

    Tommie Smith and Juan Carlos became instantly revered by the repressed and censured over their act of bravery, that even today its ugly truth is revealed in such books as Dave Zirin’s ‘Terror at the Thunderdome’, an excellent overview of the 1968 Olympics, and coverage of the racism in sports. For me, this act of bravery provides the backdrop of a lifelong exchange with the cultural icons that presenced this event which resulted in many books, songs, poems, and a rennaisance of the resurgance of ‘revolutionary art’ as a political tool, in the footsteps of Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Siquieros, Amparo Ochoa, Jose de Molina, Ophelia Media, Josefa Rodriguez, Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, Danny Glover, Dennis Brutus… Neither is Mexico nor the U.S., and the global village, free of racism and discrimination, but’One World, One Dream’ remains our anthem, and Juan Carlos and Tommie Smith, our heroes.

    Also, may I remind your readers that in San Jose, there exists a statue inaugurated in the recent times in their honor, that must be widely recognized as a tribute to their courage and leadership for the youth of today who need of this calliber of role models to emulate in their personal journeys. A very well deserved salute to these two exemplary heroes:

    Que Viva, Juan Carlos and Tommie Smith, One World, One Dream!’

    • says

      Dorinda,

      You are such a font of knowledge. I’d love for you to write an article about your experiences during this important era in American History. Any chance that’ll happen?

  6. Allen Friedman says

    I believe that it is time for common sence to become an epidemic and the people of this country realize that all people want to live in peace and tranquility during there lives. Somebody with the desire and the ability to bring this country together must show that there is no place for anything else. If a leader was ever needed, now is the time and maybe Obama is the man but we must find somebody that can end the color barrier in America!

    • says

      Thanks for the comment Allen. Who knows what it will take to end the color barrier in America. Speaking from the black person’s perspective, the end can’t come too soon for me.

  7. Lois Hamilton says

    As a young, white mother living in Southern California, I was deeply moved by those two black athletes. I remember a proud swelling in my chest at witnessing their remarkable courage.

    Thank you for this reminder of a great and poignant moment in U.S. Olympic History. Now, thanks to some progress, we may have the good fortune to elect our first African-American president. Barack Obama offers our divided country the hope of bringing us all together and re-establishing a Democracy of, by, and for the people, representing Americans of all races and religions. This is another proud moment for this cuntry.

    • says

      Lois,

      Your remarks are very appreciated by me and by others. Tommie Smith and John Carlos were treated terribly after the 68 Olympics. It is only in recent years that they have begun to receive the recognition they deserve. Thank you for commenting. I hope Tommie Smith sees this and the other wonderful comments.

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