On this day in 1968, at the Olympics Games in Mexico City, two black U.S. medalists—Tommie Smith and John Carlos—took the victory stand with their heads bowed and eyes closed, their hands raised with black gloves, and fists clenched. Their “black power salute” during the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner was a silent protest by these athletes against racial injustice, and their statement, viewed then as a controversial combination of Olympic sports and politics, sent shock waves throughout the games.
Although the now legendary photo of the two men standing with clenched fists is universally recognized, the story behind the story is seldom mentioned, much less taught in schools.
The actions of Smith—the gold medalist in the 200-meter race—and Carlos—the bronze winner—must be viewed within the context of the times in which the men lived. And the times were turbulent and divisive. After all, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert F. Kennedy had been assassinated only months before the games at Mexico City. The United States was engulfed in anti-Vietnam War protests and civil rights demonstrations. Antiwar protestors had been beaten by police during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. There were calls for black power in African-American communities throughout the nation, and the Black Panther Party had expanded to cities across America.
Enter Harry Edwards, author of The Revolt of the Black Athlete. Edwards was the organizer of the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR), an effort of black athletes to boycott the Olympics in protest of racial discrimination. The project was part of a push to have black athletes speak not only to the interests of athletes, but to show a concern for their communities and connect to the larger civil rights movement as well.
OPHR called for the hiring of more black coaches, restoration of Muhammad Ali’s boxing title, a ban of apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia from the Olympics, and the firing of Avery Brundage as head of the International Olympic Committee. Brundage, who held his title back during the 1936 Berlin Olympics, was a white supremacist and Nazi sympathizer who was responsible for Hitler hosting the games over five decades earlier. His critics note that the Olympic official had no qualms about the use of the Nazi salute during the 1936 games. Smith and Carlos had reportedly planned to refuse their medals had Brundage been present to award them.
On the victory stand, the symbolism of the political statement made by Smith and Carlos had been well planned. The two athletes wore black socks with no shoes to represent “black poverty in a racist America,” while Smith wore a black scarf around his neck standing for black pride. Carlos—who wore beads for those who were lynched and died in the Middle Passage— raised his left fist to represent black unity. And Smith raised his right fist for black power in the U.S. Together, the men represented unity and power.
“If I win I am an American, not a black American. But if I did something bad then they would say ‘a Negro’. We are black and we are proud of being black,” Smith said at a press conference after the event. “Black America will understand what we did tonight.”
As a result of their black power salute, Smith and Carlos were suspended by the U.S. Olympic Committee for a “willful disregard of Olympic principles.” In an official statement, the U.S. Committee expressed “its profound regrets” to the International Olympic committee, the Mexican Organizing Committee and to the people of Mexico, referring to the black power salute as “discourtesy” and “immature behavior.”
“The untypical exhibitionism of these athletes also violates the basic standards of good manners and sportsmanship, which are so highly valued in the United States, and therefore the two men involved are suspended forthwith from the team and ordered to remove themselves from the Olympic Village,” the statement continued.
“The impact of the protest was immediate,” said Edwards. “The U.S. Olympic Committee, acting hastily and rashly, warned all other U.S. athletes, black and white, that ”severe” penalties would follow any further protests. Smith and Carlos were given 48 hours to get out of Mexico and were suspended from the Olympic team.”
Rarely mentioned is the silent political statement made by the third medalist on the podium that day— Australian silver medalist Peter Norman. Norman, who sympathized with his African-American colleagues, wore the OPHR badge they had give him. Further, Norman had suggested the two men share Smith’s pair of black gloves, given that Carlos had forgotten his own pair.
“I couldn’t see why a black man wasn’t allowed to drink out of the same water fountain or sit in the same bus or go to the same schools as a white guy,” said Norman, who had a strong Salvation Army upbringing. “That was just social injustice that I couldn’t do anything about from where I was, but I certainly abhorred it.”
Norman had opposed his own nation’s racism, including the White Australia policy. Aboriginal children were still being forcibly removed from their families. Moreover, indigenous Australians had only been given the right to vote three years earlier, and were only counted in the census for the first time the year before. So, while the two black Olympians were loathed by many in America and were the targets of racial slurs, in those days of black power they were admired by some. Norman was not a hero in Australia, with its festering racial problems.
Ultimately, Norman was punished by the Australian Olympic Committee and made an outcast by the Australian media. Further, he was not selected for the 1972 Munich games, and was snubbed at the 2000 Sydney games, to which he was not invited to the opening or closing ceremonies. In 2006, after he died of a heart attack, Smith and Carlos traveled to Melbourne to serve as pall bearers at Norman’s funeral.
Norman, the untold hero of the 1968 Olympics who suggested that Smith and Carlos share the pair of black gloves, still holds the Australian record for the 200-meter dash. And yet, he was excluded from the history books in Australia. Last year, Peter Norman finally received an apology from the Australian parliament, even as the AOC still denied it had blacklisted him.
“A protest like this, on a global stage, had never been done before. At the time, it was electrifying,” said Australian Member of Parliament Andrew Leigh issuing an apology to Norman’s family in a speech before the legislature. “In that moment Norman advanced international awareness for racial equality. He was proud to stand with Smith and Carlos and the three remained lifelong friends.”
“In the simple act of wearing that badge, Peter Norman showed the world he stood for racial equality,” Leigh added. “He showed us that the action of one person can make a difference. It’s a message that echoes down to us today. Whether refusing to tolerate a racist joke or befriending a new migrant, each of us can – and all of us should – be a Peter Norman in our own lives.”
Meanwhile, at San Jose State University, a 23-foot statue of Tommie Smith and John Carlos was erected in 2004 to honor the famous protest of two of its former students. The statue depicts a moment when gifted athletes were united during turbulent political times by way of a powerful statement.
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