Recognition years later
Tommie and John, today
*** Legends ***
by Yussuf J. Simmonds
Athletes in the Struggle
Tommie Smith & John Carlos
(Dr. Harry Edwards)
It was 1968 and the world’s biggest and best athletes had come together for their quadrennial competition, the Olympic Games (officially known as the ‘Games of the XIX Olympiad’), in Mexico City. In the U.S., the Civil Rights Movement was at its peak. Malcolm X was gone and so was Dr. King; the Vietnam War was raging in Southeast Asia and civil unrest was rampant in many of America’s urban areas. The Kerner Commission had reported, “the U.S. was moving toward two societies, one Black and one White – separate and unequal. And it was 14 years since the Brown Decision had proclaimed that ‘separate was inherently unequal.’
Tommie Smith and John Carlos were two members of the Olympic team selected to represent the U.S. They were teammates who were attending San Jose State University and were influenced by the passionate speeches of a young sociologist, Harry Edwards. Edwards was part of the new breed of militant scholars who were the backbone of America’s Civil Rights Movement that used their academic platforms to articulate what the masses were trying to protest for in the streets. This kind of relationship was the impetus for the wave of Black Nationalism in the post Malcolm X era, the Black Panther Party, Students Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Black Manifesto and the Black Power Conference(s).
Their protest was seen around the world. In an act of defiance, Smith and Carlos, after winning the gold and bronze medals respectively in the 200-meter race, both raised their black-gloved fist in a show of ‘Black Power.’ The image of two Black American athletes standing on the podium with heads bowed and fists raised, as the Star Spangled Banner played, was one of the most memorable moments in Olympic history and a boost for America’s Civil Rights and Black Power Movements. Added to their obvious posturing, they made other gestures that were less noticeable but were of equal significance when interpreted. According to Smith, his raised right gloved fist, represented Black Power. The black scarf he wore represented Black pride, and the box in his left had contained an olive tree sapling as an emblem of peace. Carlos’ raised left gloved fist represented unity in Black America and the beads he wore were symbolic of lynchings that Blacks had suffered. That they were both without shoes represented black poverty in America. (Of significance was, it was the year after Muhammad Ali had openly and defiantly refused to enlist in the armed forces and was stripped of his heavyweight title). In a similar act, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) banned them from the Olympic Games for life. And like Ali, Smith and Carlos were both ‘grounded’ at the peak of their careers.
The prevailing wisdom then was that the Olympic Games were void of politics; the reality however, was that nothing could have been farther from the truth. The games were drenched in politics. Matter of fact, just getting to host the games was a highly politicized affair. The IOC reportedly issued the following statement after the incident: “The basic principle of the Olympic Games is that politics play no part whatsoever in them. U.S. athletes violated this universally accepted principle to advertise domestic political views.” Smith and Carlos were then expelled from the games and ordered to leave Mexico.
Their actions were in the highest order of Civil Disobedience in the tradition of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. Though by today’s standards, their actions were relatively mild, they were ostracized by mainstream America. They became pariahs and labeled as unpatriotic troublemakers; they received death threats and were unable to find employment. To Black folks however, they were heroes and their defiance was an act of courage.
The original intent, as envisioned by Edwards, was to boycott the games to bring attention to the injustices Black Americans continually experienced. That being dismissed, a large-scale protest styled after the Civil Rights marches was the other alternative. A planning group was formed, but support for an all-out boycott fizzled because as Carlos stated, “A lot of athletes thought that winning medals would supercede or protect them from racism.” So that left Smith and Carlos with a Hobson’s choice; they took it and the rest is history.
Like Rosa Parks, Smith and Carlos were protesting non-violently with dignity and honor, but there was a massive thrust by the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) COINTELPRO to disrupt and otherwise neutralize the activities of Black Nationalist organizations and Black militants, and they were caught up in that law enforcement storm and ended up on the FBI’s radar.
Not straying from the predictable path, society tends to recognize its heroes long after their heroic deeds have been done. Three and a half decades after the event, during an interview, Carlos said, “Athletics was my occupation. I didn’t do what I did as an athlete. I raised my voice (fist) in protest as a man.” In 1998, both men were honored for their acts of courage back in 1968. They have been honored with statues on the campus of their alma mater and awarded honors and honorary degrees.
Smith began life in Clarksville, Texas, in 1944 and barely made it after a bout with pneumonia. He distinguished himself as a sprinter breaking many world records as a sophomore and went on to make the U.S. Olympic Team for the 1968 games. He currently holds degrees in Sociology and Physical Education.
Carlos’ birth occurred in Harlem, New York, in 1945. He went to trade school and was awarded a full track and field scholarship to East Texas State University. After winning the school’s track and field at the Lone Star Conference Championship, he moved on to San Jose State University where he met Smith.
In 2005, the Honorable Barbara Lee recognized Smith and Carlos for their heroism and act of courage by placing them in the Congressional Record: “And Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who finished first and third, respectively, in the 200 meters at the 1968 Games in Mexico, took a courageous stand for social justice in one of the most powerful moments in the history of the Olympics.”
A mural of the photo taken with Smith on the podium at the 1968 Olympics with Carlos and Peter Norman was painted on the brick wall of a residence in Newtown, New South Wales, Australia, titled “Three Proud People, Mexico, 1968.” The mural faces the train tracks linking the city to the Western and Southern Suburbs, and was once visible to thousands of commuters every day. Smith, along with Carlos, was a pallbearer at Norman’s funeral in Melbourne in 2006.
On July 16, 2008, Tommie Smith and John Carlos accepted the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage for their salute at the 2008 ESPY Awards held at NOKIA Theatre L.A. LIVE in Los Angeles, California.