The 200 meters is probably the most exciting of the track and field events. In less than 20 seconds, the physical capabilities of the human body are put on display as runners push themselves to their limits. At the 1968 Olympics, Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos won gold and bronze medals, respectively, in the event.
Smith's elation at achieving the pinnacle in his field and Carlos' disappointment in coming this close to doing the same makes for an indelible image, one that would be quickly overwritten in most everyone's minds, including maybe their own, when they took the medal stands and raised their fists in the Black Power salute, a protest against America's treatment of black people.
By the time the Olympics kicked off that October in Mexico City, America had already gone through an extremely divisive year: The war in Vietnam was raging. Robert F. Kennedy had been assassinated in the middle of his presidential campaign, paving the way for Richard Nixon's breeze through the general election, the curtain raiser before a disastrous Democratic Convention in Chicago. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been gunned down in April, setting off riots and halting the Civil Rights Movement in its tracks. In California, the Black Panther Party began its brief attempts at bringing political change. On seemingly every broadcast of the evening news, moments of light, like the passing of the Fair Housing Act, were overshadowed by the ugliness of the era.
The Lead Up
The events preceding Smith and Carlos' actions actually start in Mexico, who in 1968 was seeking a more benevolent version of what Hitler had attempted to showcase with the Berlin games. Instead of white supremacy, Mexico sought to prove to the world that they were too a power. Gustavo Diaz Ordaz was an authoritarian president, for sure, but at the same time Mexico was flourishing economically and was otherwise politically stable. From Mark Kurlansky's 1968: The Year That Rocked The World:
The 1968 Olympics was the first time the Mexican Revolution was to show itself to the world with all its accomplishments, including an emerging middle class, the modernity of Mexico City, and the efficiency with which Mexico could run a huge international event. It would be televised to the world that Mexico was no longer backward and strife-torn but had become an emerging, successful modern country.
Like with so many Olympic host cities, there was a lot riding on the games going well in Mexico. Diaz and Olympic organizers knew there could be an issue with black athlete participation. Black activists had proposed a black boycott the November prior, knowing athletics was one of few areas where civil rights leaders had legitimate leverage. The idea was floated again by Harry Edwards, a sociology professor at San Jose State. One of his students was Tommie Smith, star of the track team and holder of two world records. The boycott picked up steam after the International Olympic Committee readmitted apartheid South Africa's team.
Protests and Boycotts Back Home
1968 was also a year of athletic boycotts at western colleges: fourteen members of the University of Wyoming football lteam were famously kicked off the squad after protesting the treatment of African Americans. At San Jose State, Edwards successfully led student-athlete boycotts of multiple sports against conference rival Brigham Young University for the Mormon church's treatment of black people.
According to Kurlansky, Edwards' office featured a poster that said, "Rather than jump for medals, we are standing up for humanity." He publicly called out black athletes who were against boycotting, like Jesse Owens and baseball's Willie Mays. In March of that year, Life magazine published a survey where a majority of black athletes said bettering the station of black Americans was worth more than an Olympic medal.
But the boycott died with the IOC's decision to re-ban the South African team. Mexico, fearing a disaster at an Olympics meant to show that Mexico was anything but, successfully lobbied the body after close to 50 countries threatened to boycott unless South Africa stayed home. It worked. Edwards called off the boycott at a Black Panther meeting.
As a condition of their participation though, "the athletes would wear black armbands and decline to participate in medal ceremonies," Kurlansky writes. If it wasn't for Mexico trying to save face, it's possible Edwards' boycott would have gone on and the Olympics would have never had one of its most powerful moments.
After their first- and third-place finishes in the 200m finals, Smith and Carlos stood atop the medal podium shoeless, wearing only dress socks on their feet. As the National Anthem began to play, they raised their fists in the Black Power salute.
The moment, Kurlansky writes, was anything but spontaneous and had only happened after "a series of meetings between the athletes." The gloves had been acquired in order to refuse the hand of Avery Brundage, the 81-year-old president of the IOC who had worked tirelessly for the segregated South African team to rejoin the games.
Perhaps unknown to Smith and Carlos was Brundage's involvement in the 1936 games as well. Then, as the head of the American Olympic Committee, Brundage had warded off attempts at anti-Hitler boycotts, saying, "the Olympic Games belong to the athletes and not to the politicians." In 1982, in a paper published by the University of Pennsylvania, Carolyn Marvin argued convincingly that Brundage was complicit in the Nazi's anti-Semitism, and critical of Jewish athletes' desire to boycott, tracing his behavior as part of his campaign against Communism. There are not many people who would be less deserving of shaking the hands of heroic athletes.
Unfortunately, Brundage was overseeing a different event when Smith and Carlos won, so they improvised, sharing a pair of gloves. In the stands, Lee Evans, a 400-meter runner on the U.S. team and fellow San Jose State student returned the gesture, "but no one noticed," according to Kurlansky.
In an interview the next day, Carlos said, "We wanted all the black people in the world—the little grocer, the man with the shoe repair store—to know that when that medal hands on my chest or Tommie's, it hands on his also."
The IOC and American Olympic Committee were furious at Smith and Carlos. The entire U.S. track and field team was nearly banned from the games until a compromise was reached and Smith and Carlos were kicked out of the Olympic Village and banned for life from the Olympics. They're now both members of the National Track and Field Hall of Fame.
Other black athletes, like long-jumper Bob Beamon, joined the protest, too, but not before accomplishing their own amazing feats.
Watching the footage, it's clear that Beamon's feat was extraordinary, but single frames are even more evocative. One such photo tells such a great story: Beamon, bent at the waist, leading with his legs, arms stretched fully behind him, appears to fly, shot out of a cannon like a cartoon stuntman; he's perfect, potential energy before its transformation into kinetic; he's an avatar for everything we think of when we think of excellence in sport; for those six seconds, over those 29 feet and change, maybe American exceptionalism is real. He broke the record by more than two feet.
Another angle shows just how absurd Beamon's leap was.
More than all his athletic heroics, though, Beamon, along with several other black Olympians and medalists, sent stronger messages in their support of Smith and Carlos.
Following his jump, Beamon received his gold medal with his sweatpants rolled up to show that he too was wearing black dress socks like Smith and Carlos. The bronze medal winner, Ralph Boston, took his medal shoeless, but neither received much notice, at least at the time.
"Bob Beamon always gets written out of the story," David Goldblatt, author of The Games: A Global History of the Olympics, told me over Skype. "But he went out on the podium shoeless with black dress socks on. That was his small, quiet contribution."
After three black Americans—Lee Evans, who had also saluted, Larry James, and Ron Freeman—each medaled in the 400m, they wore black berets to their medal ceremony, where they also raised their fists. The three were not disciplined, the IOC said, because the National Anthem wasn't playing at the time and they had removed their hats while it did play.
Smith and Carlos received support from elsewhere, too, including on the podium. Though his hands remained at his side, Peter Norman, the Australian silver medal winner, wore a solidarity badge for Olympic Project for Human Rights. “While he didn’t raise a fist, he did lend a hand,” Smith told The Guardian in 2011. The two later served as pallbearers at Norman's funeral.
“We knew that what we were going to do was far greater than any athletic feat,” Carlos said in the immediate aftermath. “[Peter] said, ‘I’ll stand with you.'”
Smith and Carlos' salute is what's remembered though, and it's followed them ever since. Though the two shared the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPYs to celebrate the 40th anniversary of their actions, it hasn't been all roses and parades for the two.
Both men and their families received eerily familiar death threats as other prominent African Americans. Time magazine's post-mortem of the Olympics said the slogan should have been changed from "Faster, Higher, Stronger" to "Angrier, nastier, uglier" before describing Smith and Carlos as, "two disaffected black athletes from the U.S. [who] put on a public display of petulance that sparked one of the most unpleasant controversies in Olympic history and turned the high drama of the games into theater of the absurd."
The famous broadcaster Brent Musburger, then a columnist for the now-defunct Chicago American, called Smith and Carlos “a pair of black skinned stormtroopers.” These were not nuanced times.
For all the criticism they received then, the two never wavered. “We were just human beings who saw a need to bring attention to the inequality in our country,” Smith said in the 1999 documentary Fists of Freedom. “I don’t like the idea of people looking at it as negative. There was nothing but a raised fist in the air and a bowed head, acknowledging the American flag—not symbolizing a hatred for it.”
Asked by Forbes in 2016 if he had any regrets, Carlos said yes, but not before clarifying:
It’s one thing to receive accolades from your peers and family; it’s another to be proud of yourself. For anything I’ve ever done in my life — and I’ve done quite a bit — I’ve never been more proud than of what I did in that demonstration.
"But the one regret I do have is that I didn’t think enough about safeguarding my family," he went on to say. "I didn’t think people would strike out at my wife and kids; I thought that they would just come after me." Carlos said that the treatment his wife and kids received because of his actions led to her suicide and them being bullied.
In 2005, San Jose State, Smith's alma mater, honored him and Carlos with a statue commemorating their salute.
The U.S. Olympic team in 2016 is its most diverse ever. It's a true feat, one Americans should be proud of, to have the population represented so well, and it's thanks in no small part to the actions of men like Smith and Carlos.
David Matthews operates the Wayback Machine on Fusion.net—hop on. Got a tip? Email him: firstname.lastname@example.org