The ESPN special, “Return to Mexico City ” is a thorough retrospective on the legacies of Tommie Smith and John Carlos. For anyone with a vivid long-term memory of those events, the high quality footage from those dramatic days will stir a full range of emotions. While we romanticize about it, we forget that 1968 was the most tragic AND dramatic year in our modern history. It was also the first time that athletes from East and West Germany competed on separate teams at the Olympics.
The program reminds us of the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the violence of the Chicago Police at the Democratic Convention, and the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike, which had brought King to Memphis . (It does so with striking production values, including using the walls of the inner corridor of the Estadio Olympico as a movie screen for some of the old footage.) When the viewer sees the Memphis sanitation workers carrying the “I AM A MAN” signs against the backdrop of the stadium walls, it is a moment of production sublimity. We FEEL the inspiration to protest along with Smith and Carlos, and REMEMBER the fear and uncertainty of 1968.
It was against this backdrop that the greatest track team in history arrived in Mexico City with expectations of winning the meet and making a political statement. As if the drama at home were not enough, we are reminded that just 10 days before the opening ceremonies, the Mexico City Police massacred over 200 students and citizens in what had been a peaceful demonstration.
The program also relies on recent interviews with other members of the American track team including Wyomia Tyus, Dick Fosbury and Lee Evans. Tyus furnishes insight into the thought process about how to protest. Evans presence as a rapporteur raises a question about one of the program’s few flaws. No mention is made of the “demonstration” on the Men’s 400 Meter medal stand a few days after Smith and Carlos were expelled from the games. Evans had led an American sweep and set a world record that stood until Michael Johnson took it in Atlanta . US Olympic Committee Chairman Avery Brundage warned that any other demonstrations would be met with a quick expulsion from the games. Evans and his mates Ron Freeman and the late Larry James wore black berets to the medal stand. When the national anthem began to play, they respectfully removed their hats and placed them over their hearts. What could Brundage do? It was respectful and reverent.
The demonstration by Smith and Carlos was equally reverent, but they became icons of protest and a symbol of the times. Black men wearing black gloves and holding their fists in the air during the playing of the anthem, was a brutal shock to the sensibilities of many Americans. They were criticized by some black leaders as being unduly provocative. The men also removed their shoes to symbolize the poverty and racism in America , and wore black socks on the medal stand. We look back on this event as being necessary and appropriate, and are reminded of this various journalists of the context. At the time, it was met with fury and indignation from journalistic and political sources, and both men suffered. Smith’s first wife divorced him and Carlos’ first wife committed suicide.
An interesting source is Lloyd LaCuesta who was a student journalist at San Jose State in 1968, and now is the South Bay reporter for KTVU News in Oakland . He tells us that the men’s return home was one of the most inappropriate non-tributes ever to occur. Instead of bands playing and the mayor showing up with the keys to the city, both men and their wives were subjected to prosecutorial treatment from journalists, politicians and school administrators.
Peter Norman, who took second in the 200 and stood on the medal stand with Smith and Carlos, was also a hero in this. He quietly supported their protest, by wearing an “Olympic Project for Human Rights” pin that Carlos had given him right after the race. Norman endured ridicule and harassment in Australia for his support. Smith has an appropriate tribute to Norman on his website.
Like Usain Bolt, Smith raised his arms in triumphant joy about 15 meters from the finish line, leading many to wonder “how fast COULD he have run?” What would the US 4 X 100 Relay team had done if Smith and Carlos had been allowed to run? The “World’s Greatest Track Team” drew a disproportionate number of athletes from San Jose State . Sprinter Ronnie Ray Smith, and hammer thrower Ed Burke came from SJS in addition to Smith, Carlos, and Evans. Coach Bud Winter nurtured a generation of athletes like no other, yet he is not mentioned in the broadcast.
The backgrounds of Smith & Carlos could not have been more different for black men of the time. Carlos was a product of the Harlem Renaissance, with a finely tuned taste for jazz nurtured by his visits to the Savoy Ballroom. Smith, meanwhile, was the son of a sharecropper who was born in Texas and moved to California ’s Central Valley for more work opportunities. Carlos spent one year at East Texas State before returning to the haven of Harlem. Imagine coming from the center of black culture in America and finding yourself in the heart of Jim Crow. The sociologist Harry Edwards recruited Carlos to SJS, where Smith had accepted a scholarship. Winters molded them into champions.
The program is an exercise in healing. It traces the falling out and healing between Smith and Carlos. It makes right the indignation both men and their wives suffered as a result of their heroic act. The presence of President Barack Obama as a narrator near the beginning and end reminds us of our growth and progress as a nation.
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H. Scott Prosterman
H. Scott Prosterman is a writer, humorist and editor in Berkeley, California . He was born in the ’50s, came of age in the ’60s, thrived in the ’70’s, barely survived the ’80’s and regrouped in the ’90’s.” He holds a B.A. w/Honors from Rhodes College ; an M.A. from The University of Michigan . While in Ann Arbor , he coordinated the campaign to save the $5 for possession in 1983.