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CultureHISTORY: Tommie Smith and John Carlos, Olympics 1968

“We were just human beings who saw a need to bring attention to the inequality in our country.” - Tommie Smith

On this date (10/16) in 1968, the ‘black power’ salute at the Summer Olympics in Mexico City. One of my favorite historical photos and one of the most powerful moments in black history. More background here.

Photo credits:

  1. Summer Olympics, Mexico City, 1968
  2. Summer Olympics, Mexico City, 1968
  3. San Jose State University honors former students Smith & Carlos with a statue on campus, 2005
  4. Smith and Carlos, 2011

Black History: October 16, 1968 - The Silent Protest

Today in history at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, African-American athlete Tommie Smith won the 200-metre dash in a record time of 19.83 seconds, thus winning the gold medal. White Australian athlete Peter Norman came second at 20.06 seconds and African-American athlete John Carlos came third at 20.10 seconds.

While receiving their medals at the podium:

  • Smith and Carlos removed their shoes, wearing black socks to symbolise black poverty
  • Smith represented his black pride by wearing a black scarf
  • Carlos wore beads as a reference to the slaves who were thrown over boats in the middle passage and for those who were lynched, killed, hung and tarred
  • Both athletes wore a single black glove (Peter Norman suggested that John Carlos should wear Tommie Smith’s left-hand glove)

Smith and Carlos bowed their head and raised their gloved fists as the American Star-Spangled Banner played, and the crowd booed the athletes as they left the podium. After the event, Smith stated:

“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. Black America will understand what we did tonight.“

The 1968 Olympics Black Power Salute: African American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raise their fists in a gesture of solidarity at the 1968 Olympic games. Australian Silver medalist Peter Norman wore an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge in support of their protest. Both Americans were expelled from the games as a result

October 16, 2015

Today In History

‘Tommie Smith and John Carlos (wearing gloves and socks) rose their fists in support of the struggle for Black freedom while being awarded the 200-meter Olympic Gold and Bronze Medals respectively on this date October 16, 1968.’

(photo: Peter Norman, Tommie Smith and John Carlos)

- CARTER Magazine

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(via The white man in that photo | GRIOT)  Amazing story. 

 “For years Norman had only one chance to save himself: he was invited [by his country] to condemn his co-athletes, John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s gesture in exchange for a pardon from the system that ostracized him.  A pardon that would have allowed him to find a stable job through the Australian Olympic Committee and be part of the organization of the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. 

Norman never gave in and never condemned the choice of the two Americans. He was the greatest Australian sprinter in history and the holder of the 200 meter record, yet he wasn’t even invited to the Olympics in Sydney. 

It was the American Olympic Committee, that once they learned of this news asked him to join their group and invited him to Olympic champion Michael Johnson’s birthday party, for whom Peter Norman was a role model and a hero.

Norman died suddenly from a heart attack in 2006, without his country ever having apologized for their treatment of him. At his funeral Tommie Smith and John Carlos, Norman’s friends since that moment in 1968, were his pallbearers, sending him off as a hero.”

October 17, 1968: Olympic Protestors Stripped of Their Medals

On this day in 1968, Olympic gold medalist Tommie Smith and bronze medalist John Carlos were forced to return their track and field awards. During the medal ceremony the previous day, both American athletes raised their fists in a black–power salute.

International Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage criticized the athletes’ stance, claiming that it renounced “the basic principles of the Olympic games.”

Watch Tavis Smiley’s 2011 interview with John Carlos, in which they discuss why politics has an undeniable place in the Olympic Games.

Photo: Universal Images Group/Getty Images

“If I was an athlete today, I wouldn’t be concerned about anything other than what’s right. You need to follow your conscience, follow your heart, follow your wisdom, and follow your education as to what the plight is. If you feel like you must do something, the only thing you will regret is doing nothing.” - Former track & field Olympian John Carlos (right) on the Sochi Olympics being the prime moment for athletes to stand up for LGBT rights.

If I win, I am American, not a black American. But if I did something bad, then they would say I am a Negro. We are black and we are proud of being black. Black America will understand what we did tonight.
—  Tommie Smith, in regards to the criticism he and fellow black American athlete John Carlos endured after raising their fists in protest at the 1968 Olympics 200 metre sprint medal ceremony

John Carlos & Tommie Smith give Black Power salute at 1968 Mexico City Olympics medal ceremony

When the medals were awarded for the men’s 200-meter sprint at the 1968 Olympic Games, Life magazine photographer John Dominis was only about 20 feet away from the podium. “I didn’t think it was a big news event,” Dominis says. “I was expecting a normal ceremony. I hardly noticed what was happening when I was shooting.”

Indeed, the ceremony that October 16 “actually passed without much general notice in the packed Olympic Stadium," New York Times correspondent Joseph M. Sheehan reported from Mexico City. But by the time Sheehan’s observation appeared in print three days later, the event had become front-page news: for politicizing the Games, U.S. Olympic officials, under pressure from the International Olympic Committee, had suspended medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos and sent them packing.

Smith and Carlos, winners of the gold and bronze medals, respectively, in the event, had come to the ceremony dressed to protest: wearing black socks and no shoes to symbolize African-American poverty, a black glove to express African-American strength and unity. (Smith also wore a scarf, and Carlos beads, in memory of lynching victims.) As the national anthem played and an international TV audience watched, each man bowed his head and raised a fist. After the two were banished, images of their gesture entered the iconography of athletic protest.

"It was a polarizing moment because it was seen as an example of black power radicalism,” says Doug Hartmann, a University of Minnesota sociologist and the author of Race, Culture, and the Revolt of the Black Athlete: The 1968 Olympic Protests and Their Aftermath. “Mainstream America hated what they did.”

The United States was already deeply divided over the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement, and the serial traumas of 1968—mounting antiwar protests, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, the beating of protesters during the Democratic National Convention by Chicago police—put those rifts into high relief. Before the Olympics, many African-American athletes had talked of joining a boycott of the Games to protest racial inequities in the United States. But the boycott, organized by sociologist Harry Edwards, never came off.

As students at San Jose State University, where Edwards was teaching, Smith and Carlos took part in that conversation. Carlos, born and raised in Harlem, was “an extreme extrovert with a challenging personality,” says Edwards, now emeritus professor of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley. Smith, the son of sharecroppers who grew up in rural Texas and California, was “a much softer, private person.” When they raised their fists on the medals stand, they were acting on their own.

Among the Games athletes, opinions were divided. Australia’s Peter Norman, the winner of the silver medal in the 200-meter sprint, mounted the podium wearing a badge supporting Edwards’ organization. Heavyweight boxer George Foreman—who would win a gold medal and wave an American flag in the ring—dismissed the protest, saying, “That’s for college kids.” The four women runners on the U.S. 400-meter relay team dedicated their victory to the exiled sprinters. A representative of the USSR was quoted as saying, perhaps inevitably, “The Soviet Union never has used the Olympic Games for propaganda purposes.”

Smith and Carlos returned home to a wave of opprobrium—they were “black-skinned storm troopers,” in the words of Brent Musburger, who would gain fame as a TV sportscaster but was then a columnist for the Chicago American newspaper—and anonymous death threats. The pressure, Carlos says, was a factor in his then-wife’s suicide in 1977. “One minute everything was sunny and happy, the next minute was chaos and crazy,” he says. Smith recalls, “I had no job and no education, and I was married with a 7-month-old son.”

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