The AP called it a Nazi like salute, and Chicago columnist Brent Musburger called them “black-skinned storm troopers”, yet black America saw them as heroes. For many outside of America, Tommie Smith’s and John Carlos’s protest was their first introduction to “Black Power” and the clenched fist, raised arm Black Power salute. Media editors denounced them as unpatriotic, and un-American yet Smith thought that was the point saying, “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.”
Being Black, and facing the racism they and other Black Americans felt was what the protest was all about. Smith and Carlos each wore a black glove on opposite hands, and Smith’s raised right fist represented Black Power, while Carlos raised left fist represented Black Unity. Together, the raised black, gloved fists formed an arch of Unity and Power. Along with the gloves, the men wore black socks with no shoes to protest black poverty. Smith wore a black scarf that stood for black pride, and Carlos wore beads which he described, “The beads were for those individuals that were lynched, or killed that no-one said a prayer for, that were hung and tarred. It was for those thrown off the side of the boats in the middle passage.” Having such an elaborate statement many people assumed that Carlos and Smith were close, yet they barely talked before and after the protest. They only worked out their statement during the two-hour wait for the medal ceremony. Smith commenting on the relationship has said, “I don’t think John Carlos likes me, even now, [but] I don’t think Carlos likes very many people. That’s just his demeanour.”
John Wesley Carlos was born June 5, 1945 in Harlem, New York. One of five children he spent a lot of time across the road from his apartment at the Savoy Ballroom. The Savoy was a hot spot on the big band and jazz circuit. Carlos and his friends were always helping people out of cabs, singing dancing outside the club, “we were out there hustling,” he said. As a promising high school athlete he was able to get a full track and field scholarship at East Texas State University (ETSU). His presence is attributed to ETSU winning their first Lone Star Conference Championship. After one year, he was lured to San Jose State College where he was trained by Lloyd (Bud) Winter a future National Track & Field Hall of Fame coach.
Tommie Smith was born in Clarksville, Texas on June 5, 1944. One of 12 children born into a farming family, Smith would often spend up to 10 hours a day helping in the fields. After his family moved to California he attended Lemoore High School where he set many track records, some of which still remain unbroken. His skill as a runner won him a scholarship at San Jose State. At San Jose State he won the national collegiate 220 yd title in 1967, and the AAU furlong as well. In 1968 he again won the AAU furlong getting him a spot on the Olympic team.
While both Smith and Carlos attended San Jose State, another former black athlete was teaching Sociology, Harry Edwards. Edwards noted that, “…the same social and racial injustices and discrimination that had dogged [his and other Black student’s] footsteps as freshmen at San Jose were still rampant on campus – racism in the fraternities and sororities, racism in housing, racism and out-and-out mistreatment in athletics, and a general lack of understanding of the problems of Afro-Americans by the college administration.” Edwards and others through protest were able to change a lot of conditions on campus. Through his results, he released the power Black Athlete’s held over America’s unofficial religion, sports. Edwards had been able to organize black players to boycott a football game forcing it to be cancelled, even though then governor Reagan was willing to bring in the National Guard. The boycott became nationwide news because it was the first time in a 100 years of NCAA Division I history that a football game had been cancelled because of a campus protest. More threats against other sporting events were able to force change, including more Black faculty, desegregated school dorms and more Black student enrollment.
Olympic Project for Human Rights
It was this power in mind that Edwards, other Black athletes, and Civil Rights activists created the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR). The OPHR was originally created to boycott the 1968 Mexico City Olympics unless key demands where meet:
South Africa and Rhodesia not showing up to the 1968 games and the attitude of most black athletes took the wind out of the boycott. Many athletes did not want to give up an event that they had been training their whole lives for. John Carlos recounted, “We first tried to have a boycott (of the games) but not everyone was down with that plan. A lot of athletes thought that winning medals would supersede or protect them from racism. But even if you won the medal, it ain’t going to save your momma. It ain’t going to save your sister or children. It might give you fifteen minutes of fame, but what about the rest of your life? I’m not saying that they didn’t have the right to follow their dreams, but to me the medal was nothing but the carrot on a stick.” OPHR decided to abandon the boycott plan, although some black athletes decided not to come, and called on black athletes to protest in their own ways.
When the American athletes arrived in Mexico the media pressed them hard to reveal what type of protest they had planned. The US track coaches sought to assure reporters that there would be “no trouble whatever” and “there will be no demonstrations”. Carlos while pledging that he had no intention to disrupt the games also said, “But that does not mean we will not do something to accentuate the injustices that have been done to the black man in America. . . . If I win a gold medal, I will be up there to get it. I may throw it away afterwards, but nothing is going to keep me from getting it.” The world didn’t need long to figure out what “something to accentuate the injustices” meant.
Even before the medal ceremony the black athletes caused a stir over when it became know that they didn’t want the Brundage to present any medals to them. It was thought to be an honor for the American president of IOC to present the medals yet the OPHR still detested him for his past actions that many thought where racist. When sprinters Jim Hines and Charlie Greene made it clear that they didn’t want Brundage to present their medals Brundage seeking to avoid controversy stayed away from the ceremony. British official Lord David Burghley instead handed Hines his gold medal and Greene his bronze. Tommie Smith also told the press that if he won a medal he didn’t want to get it from Brundage. Smith’s wife bought a pair of black gloves in case Brundage did show up.
Even before their medal podium display, Smith and Carlos were making the news. Reporters took note of their unusual long black socks. Newsweek described them as ghetto pimp socks. Jesse Owens the famous black sprinter who beat the Nazi sprinters at the 1936 Olympic games was commentating at Mexico City. Labelled an “Uncle Tom” by the OPHR, he still had advice for Smith and Carlos: they should have shorter socks, below the calves, so as to not effect circulation. At the next race when he noticed that Carlos had indeed switched to shorter socks Owens remarked, “Maybe they’re listening to their uncle. I’m old enough to be their uncle, but I’m not their Tom. We don’t need this kind of stuff. We should just let the boys go out and compete.”
Curiosity on how black athletes would protest assured a huge TV viewing audience. Smith made it even bigger when in his first heat he tied the Olympic record, 20.3. The bar was raised a few heats later when Australian Peter Norman broke that record with his best print ever 20.2. Smith matched that time in another heat but also pulled a groin abductor muscle. Commentators worried that Smith might not be able to run in the final but in the final race, showing no pain, Smith crushed the world record with an unbelievable time of 19.83. The 20 second mark was not broken at the Olympics again until Carl Lewis at the 1984 LA Olympics. The upstart Aussie Peter Norman bested John Carlos to take the silver but Carlos would later say that he let Smith win because the gold was more important to Smith. Despite the excitement of the race it was at the medal ceremony where the real show would take place.
As the American and Australian flags where raised with an estimated audience of 400 million looking on Smith and Carlos walked out to the medal podium wearing socks and holding one shoe in their hands. While the Star-Spangled Banner played they each raised their black, gloved fists into the air. Silver medalist Peter Norman, in solidarity, wore an OPHR badge that he took from Paul Hoffman in the stands(US rowing team member that supported the OPHR. For giving his badge he was almost kicked out of the Olympics). Smith recounted:
“My whole life flashed in my face. I had two minutes to see everything. Oh man, I never felt such a rush of pride. Even hearing the Star-Spangled Banner was pride, even though it didn’t totally represent me. But it was the anthem which represented the country I represented, can you see that? They say we demeaned the flag. Hey, no way man. That’s my flag . . . that’s the American flag and I’m an American. But I couldn’t salute it in the accepted manner, because it didn’t represent me fully; only to the extent of asking me to be great on the running track, then obliging me to come home and be just another nigger.”
In the stands Mrs. Smith laughed with her friends, “Wait, until Avery sees this, He’ll die.” Not everyone in stands was as supportive, while The Star-Spangled Banner played the audience booed and heckled the two. The Olympic officials never ones to break protocol never turned from the flags to see what all the fuss was about. As the athletes left the stadium the catcalls from the audience grew and Smith and Carlos raising their fists again in defiance.
The IOC wanted them Smith and Carlos out of the games. At first the US Olympic Committee refused to ban but when the IOC said the whole US track team would be kicked out, the USOC complied. The two were withdrawn from all future races and kicked out of the Village. Many of the athletes tried to show solidarity with the two. Wyomia Tyus upon taking the gold in the woman’s 4×100 team said, “I’d like to say that we dedicate our relay win to John Carlos and Tommy Smith.” The all white Olympic Crew Team from Harvard even 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 US 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.” More surprising was the actions of fellow Olympian, boxer George Foreman. Foreman, who won the gold, waved an American Flag on the podium and then bowed to the stadium crowed, actions seen by many as a show of anti-solidarity with Smith and Carlos.
The other man on the podium, Peter Norman, also faced a storm when he returned to his home country of Australia. While he didn’t raise his fists he did wear a badge supporting Smith and Carlos’ actions. Even though he was a world class athlete the Australians didn’t send him to the following games and he was treated like a sports pariah. Even during the Sydney Olympics he was the only VIP sportsperson to be banned from taking lap of honor at the 2000 Games. The Americans at the games, however, embraced his place in history and allowed him use of their facilities. In an interview in 2012 John Carlos said that:
There’s no-one in the nation of Australia that should be honoured, recognised, appreciated more than Peter Norman for his humanitarian concerns, his character, his strength and his willingness to be a sacrificial lamb for justice. That’s what I would say to the people of Australia.
The Australian Olympic Committee has had a decades long policy of officially denying that it took part in any harsh treatment to Peter Norman as a result of his actions at the 1968 games but in August of 2012 the Australian government issued an official apology to Peter stating:
“That this House; Recognises the extraordinary athletic achievements of the late Peter Norman, who won the silver medal in the 200 metres sprint running at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, in a time of 20.06 seconds, which still stands as the Australian record;
Acknowledges the bravery of Peter Norman in donning an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge on the podium, in solidarity with African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who gave the black power salute;
Apologises to Peter Norman for the wrong done by Australia in failing to send him to the 1972 Munich Olympics, despite repeatedly qualifying; and Belatedly recognises the powerful role that Peter Norman played in furthering racial equality. — Australian statement
Unfortunately Peter was no longer around to hear of his redemption. In 2006 he underwent triple bypass surgery and then while mowing his lawn a month later was hit with a fatal heart attack on October 3, 2006. Morning his loos were his second wife, Ruth, their three children, and his first wife, Jan, and their two children.
The two returned to the States to death threats and attacks on their homes. Smith visited his father who as always was working the fields. His dad couldn’t read, but people told him that his son had gotten into trouble in Mexico. Smith remembers how, “He kind of looked at me, looked up and down, and said in his southern drawl: ‘You know, I’ve been hearing a lot of things about you. Everybody been telling me you did something wrong. You stuck a hand up or hit somebody or something.’ I said that’s not truthful. He said: ‘Well, you’re telling me that and I’m going to believe you. You’re my son.’ First time I shook hands with him in my life.”
With the death threats and attacks came a mixed blessing when after graduation Smith was given a honorable discharge from the army for “un-American activities”. Saving him from having to go and serve in Vietnam. “I was going to ‘Nam, I could see myself in rice paddies. I believe there’s a God. Sixty-eight had its downfall, but it had its protection for me. I might not be alive.” Carlos who had two brothers in service and they two were discharged after his protest.
Carlos went on to have his best year in ’69 when he equaled the 100-yard record of 9.1, won the AAU 220-yard run and lead San Jose State to its first NCAA victory in the 100 and 220 4×110-yard relay. After track he tried the NFL playing with the Philadelphia Eagles until a knee injury forced him out. He tried again in the Canadian Football League before retiring from football after two years. After a number of jobs in 1985 he became the Track & Field Coach, at Palm Springs, California High School.
Tommie Smith track career saw him setting several world records and he to also tried football, playing with the Cincinnati Bengals for three years. He went on to become a professor of sociology and track coach at Oberlin College in Ohio. He is now a faculty member at Santa Monica College in Santa Monica, California.
“None of these kids know who I am,” Smith says of his young track protégés at the Santa Monica College. “They don’t have the slightest idea. To them I’m just ‘coach’.” At a ceremony at San Jose State to honor their protest Smith comments, “What’s so surprising about it is, on a positive note, it’s the brainchild of a 23-year-old white student,” Smith said. It’s been almost 40 years since the two made their stand, made history. Thirty-five years have passed since two sprinters made a stand, made a difference, made history. “We still have a way to go,” Carlos said, “but we can see some distance for where we were.”