The year was 1968 and all eyes were on the summer Olympics. I was on an extended summer vacation due to the teachers’ strike in New York City. Being me, I was not too sad about the strike; in fact I rather enjoyed my extended summer break. I was a fourteen-year-old athlete and involved myself in playing a lot of football, basketball and baseball. I enjoyed the World Series games between the St Louis Cardinals and Detroit Tigers.
The year was full of political activity. The nation suffered two assassinations: Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy. The atmosphere was electric with young people protesting the Vietnam War and other social injustices. In my neighborhood, the predominantly black Queensbridge housing projects in Long Island City, NY, there was a lot of talk about Muhammad Ali’s refusal to be inducted into the military. The Black Panther Party continued to protest the social injustices and police brutality in America. An avid reader, I read a great deal of literature from The Nation of Islam and the Black Panther Party, which introduced me to writers such as Richard Wright, W.E.B DuBois, Claude Brown, Alex Haley, James Baldwin and a host of others. I was never taught black history or black literature in school, so much of these readings were new and intriguing to me. I craved a lot more of this knowledge.
As the summer Olympic Games drew nearer—they were held in October that year—there was much discussion about Dr. Harry Edwards’ call for black athletes to boycott them. This topic intrigued me because I understood the reasons. The summer had seen many social upheavals. The Civil Rights bill, guaranteeing equal rights and fair treatment for all, was three years old. Black Americans, however, were still being treated like second-class citizens despite our many contributions to America. Like many Black Americans, I suspect, I was conflicted about the proposed boycott. I wanted to see our great black athletes compete; however I asked myself why we should represent a country that didn’t appreciate us or our achievements. I would get the answer to my question on October 18, 1968. It has been 45 years since that day, and I can still remember it as if it were yesterday.
Before I describe the events of October 18, I would like to offer a bit of history that preceded it. Some U.S. athletes did boycott the 1968 Olympic Games–including the starting five of the U.S. Olympic basketball team: Lew Alcindor (later to become Kareem Abdul Jabbar), Elvin Hayes, Wes Unseld, Calvin Murphy and Pete Maravich. Other members of the team played, however, and won the gold medal. Many people speak of the “dream teams” of the 1984 and the 1992 Games; but it is my belief that the 1968 team would also have been one of the greatest basketball teams ever to play; we just never got a chance to see it.
Ten days before the Games began, the Mexican government sent soldiers and tanks to disrupt a peaceful protest of the Games. Scores of protestors were killed and more than one thousand arrested in what came to be known as the Tlatelolco massacre. The brutality of this act was not lost or unknown to the athletes, many of whom were abhorred. Many athletes also felt that the country of South Africa, with its apartheid policies, should not be allowed to participate in the Games.
On October 18, 1968, American sprinters Tommy Smith and John Carlos were slated to run in the 200- meters final. Also slated was a little-known sprinter by the name of Peter Norman, of Australia. Tommy Smith would set a world record and win the gold. Peter Norman would come in second and John Carlos third. During the medal ceremony, Tommy Smith and John Carlos came to the podium wearing black socks, instead of shoes, and a black glove on one of their hands. As the national anthem played, both athletes raised their gloved fists in the air, in what was known at the time as the Black Power salute.
Watching on television, I was stunned, and my father let out an expletive. These two athletes stood on the stand, undaunted and proud in their statement of Black empowerment. After the shock subsided, a surge of pride and empowerment also rose in me. My father, being of the old school, was still trying to wrap his head around this action. Australian Peter Norman, who was white, also stood in protest, wearing an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge in solidarity with the American runners.
The consequences for Smith and Carlos were swift. IOC chairman Avery Brundage, who had made no objection to Nazi salutes during the 1936 Berlin Games, had the two athletes immediately suspended from the Games, removed from the Olympic Village, and their medals taken from them. Peter Norman would never run for Australia again, even though he qualified for the Australian Olympic team in 1972. All three athletes were treated like pariahs in their home countries. Smith and Carlos received death threats and Norman was ostracized by the Australian media and his country’s Olympic organizing committee—though the Australian Parliament later apologized (posthumously) and declared the day of his untimely death—in 2006 at age 64—“Peter Norman Day.” Smith and Carlos served as pallbearers and spoke at Norman’s funeral.
Americans, by and large, did not grasp the reasons for, nor the courage represented by Smith’s and Carlos’s action. Far too many white Americans took their protest personally. Many felt as if African Americans should be satisfied and grateful just to live in America. It took two generations before Americans would fully understand what happened that day and why Smith and Carlos did what they did.
If Americans had been able to open their eyes in October 1968, they would have seen Smith’s and Carlos’s action as an empowering moment for all Americans—made in solidarity with the blacks in South Africa struggling against apartheid and the struggles of people against racism all over the world. Tommie Smith said in his autobiography, Silent Gesture, “My salute was for the human rights of all humanity, even those who denied us ours.”
As a young person watching Smith and Carlos, I experienced a surge of pride in their demonstration of courage and integrity. Their protest was about principle rather than personal gain. They showed America what “overcoming obstacles” meant. They demonstrated to America—and the world—that we can all overcome. They, as American citizens, descended from slaves and still facing segregation and injustice, represented their country no matter what. Today, Smith’s and Carlos’s salute is regarded by many as the most overtly political statement in the history of the modern games—and one of the iconic moments of the 20th Century.
As mentioned earlier, it would be decades before Americans would recognize that what these three athletes did was great for America and the world. In 2008 Smith and Carlos received the Arthur Ashe Courage Award and also had their medals returned to them. A few years earlier San Jose State University would erect a 22-foot statue in their honor on their campus. As Akaash Maharaj, a member of the Canadian Olympic Committee, said in a 2011 speech at the University of Guelph, “In that moment, Tommie Smith, Peter Norman, and John Carlos became the living embodiments of Olympic idealism. Ever since, they have been inspirations to generations of athletes like myself, who can only aspire to their example of putting principle before personal interest. It was their misfortune to be far greater human beings than the leaders of the IOC of the day.”
We have not reached that Promised Land that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed of, but we are getting there.