How Black Power took center stage at the 1968 Olympics
August 15, 2003 | Page 8
BLACK ATHLETES Tommie Smith and John Carlos made history when they took the Olympic medal stage in Mexico City, Mexico, in 1968 and raised their gloved fists in the Black Power salute. DAVID ZIRIN explains the political radicalization of the time and the spirit of revolt that surrounds what is one of the most famous moments in sports, and civil rights, history.
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"It was inevitable that this revolt of the black athlete should develop. With struggles being waged by black people in the areas of education, housing employment and many others, it was only a matter of time before Afro-American athletes shed their fantasies and delusions...and faced the facts of their existence."
IT HAS been 35 years since a migrant worker's son named Tommie Smith and Harlem's John Carlos took the medal stand at the 1968 summer Olympic games and created what is arguably the most enduring image in sports history.
But while the image has stood the test of time, the politics that led to that moment have been cast aside and forgotten, its political teeth extracted. Smith's and Carlos' stunning gesture of revolt and resistance was not the product of some spontaneous urge to get face time on the evening news, but was the result of Black athletes organizing.
In the fall of 1967, amateur Black athletes formed the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) to organize a boycott of the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. OPHR and its lead organizer Dr. Harry Edwards were influenced by the Black Power movement of the time.
OPHR's goal was to expose how the U.S. used Black athletes to project a lie both at home and internationally. The group's founding statement declared, "We must no longer allow this country to use a few so called Negroes to point out to the world how much progress she has made in solving her racial problems when the oppression of Afro-Americans is greater than it ever was. We must no longer allow the sports world to pat itself on the back as a citadel of racial justice when the racial injustices of the sports world are infamously legendary...[A]ny black person who allows himself to be used in the above matter is a traitor because he allows racist whites the luxury of resting assured that those black people in the ghettos are there because that is where they want to be. So we ask why should we run in Mexico only to crawl home?"
OPHR had three central demands:
1. "Restore Muhammad Ali's title." Ali's boxing title had been stripped earlier that year for his resistance to the Vietnam War draft. By expressing solidarity with Ali, the Olympic athletes were also expressing their opposition to the war.
2. "Remove Avery Brundage as head of the United States Olympic Committee." Brundage was a notorious white supremacist who is best remembered today for sealing the deal on Hitler hosting the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
3. "Disinvite South Africa and Rhodesia." This was a conscious effort to express internationalism with the black liberation struggles occurring in these two apartheid states.
The International Olympic Committee buckled on the third demand, banning Rhodesia and South Africa. Although this took the wind out of the sails of a broader boycott of the games, many athletes were still determined to make a stand.
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THE DAYS and months leading up to the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City were electric with struggle. The weaknesses of U.S. imperialism was on display for all the world to see when the Vietnamese National Liberation Front launched the Tet offensive in late January, and the war turned decisively toward U.S. defeat.
The assassination of civil right leader Martin Luther King in April sparked revolts in the streets of cities across the U.S. Chapters of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense were springing up across the country. In Prague, protesting Czech students had challenged Russian tanks in the streets. And in France, millions of workers took part in one of one of largest general strikes in world history.
On October 2, 10 days before the Olympic Games opened, Mexican security forces massacred hundreds of students in Mexico City who were occupying the National University.
All this set the stage for the rebellion that Black athletes were organizing inside the Olympic stadium. On the second day of the Games, Smith and Carlos took their stand. First, Smith set a world record. Then he took out the gloves. When Smith took the stage to accept the gold medal for his 200-meter run, he took out a pair of black gloves, handing one over to Carlos, the third-place winner. When the silver medalist, a runner from Australia named Peter Norman, saw what was happening, he ran into the stands to grab an OPHR patch off a supporters' chest to show his solidarity on the medal stand.
When the U.S. flag began rising up the flagpole and the anthem played, the two men bowed their heads and raised their fists in a black power salute.
But there was more than the gloves. Smith and Carlos also wore no shoes to protest black poverty; and beads to protest lynching.
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WITHIN HOURS, Smith and Carlos were expelled from the Olympic Village and stripped of their medals. Avery Brundage, head of the U.S. Olympic Committee, justified this by saying, "They violated one of the basic principles of the Olympic Games: that politics play no part whatsoever in them."
The Los Angeles Times accused Smith and Carlos of a "Nazi-like salute." Time magazine ran a picture of the Olympic logo, but instead of the motto "Faster, Higher, Stronger," they replaced it with "Angrier, Nastier, Uglier."
But if Smith and Carlos were attacked from all corners, they also received support from unlikely sources. The Olympic Crew Team, all-white and entirely from Harvard, issued this statement: "We--as individuals--have been concerned about the place of the black man in American society in their struggle for equal rights. As members of the U.S. Olympic team, each of us has come to feel a moral commitment to support our black teammates in their efforts to dramatize the injustices and inequities which permeate out society."
OPHR and the actions of Smith and Carlos were a terrific slap in the face to the hypocrisy at the heart of the Olympics.
Unfortunately, OPHR members missed a huge opportunity by leaving women virtually shut out from the movement. Most OPHR calls centered on Blacks reclaiming their manhood, as if African American women weren't victims of racism or couldn't be a strong voice against it.
Despite this, women athletes voiced their solidarity after the fact. The anchor of the women's gold medal-wining 4 x 100 team, Wyomia Tyus said, "I'd like to say that we dedicate our relay win to John Carlos and Tommie Smith."
It was a watershed moment of resistance. But Carlos and Smith are not merely creatures of nostalgia. As we build resistance today to racism war, theirs is a living history we should celebrate. As Smith said recently of his frozen moment, "It's not something I can lay on my shelf and forget about. My heart and soul are still on that team, and I still believe everything we were trying to fight for in 1968 has not been resolved and will be part of our future."