October 16th marks the 45th anniversary of an iconic moment in sports history, in African-American history and in civil rights history.
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.
Some black basketball players had participated in the Olympic boycott, while track and field athletes engaged in demonstrations upon receiving their medals.
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.”