The day John Carlos and Tommie Smith rocked the world raising their fists for equality
October 17, 1968 marks the completion of a social movement from the United States directed to the world. On that day, at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, black athletes John Carlos and Tommie Smith won bronze and gold in the men’s 200 meters final, Smith marking a new world record. Despite a call by the Olympic Project for Human Rights for boycotts of the Olympic Games by athletes, the U.S. Olympic team has won 28 medals and broke eight new world records.
In 1968 America has been riddled with racial tensions since the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Dr Harry Edwards, the founder of OPHR, saw the Olympics as a way to mark the occasion, given the many black athletes who make up the American Olympic team. In addition to boycotts, their demands include to disinvite the apartheid countries of South Africa and Rhodesia. The dismissal of Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage, who is openly racist. And the hiring of black coaches. The boycott didn’t succeed, but theymade make history when Tommie Smith and John Carlos stand on the podium without shoes bearing their medals.
When the U.S. national anthem sounds in the stadium, the two athletes bowed their heads and raise their black-gloved fists to protest the racial injustice that plagues their countries. They don’t wear shoes, only black socks. The three athletes, including silver medalist Peter Norman, wore the Olympic Project for Human Rights button. Tommie Smith explained the symbolism of his gesture. By wearing the black socks, they symbolized the poverty faced by the black American community, his scarf symbolized “blackness”, and their black-gloved fists represent the unicity and power of black America. J Carlos will wore his open Olympic jacket to support the working class and beads to honour the victims of lynching.
The lengthy protest spread worldwide will be perceived in the worst possible way. Both athletes saw the Olympics end and got kicked off the U.S. Olympic team. They will have 48 hours to leave Mexico City.
The gesture nevertheless marks the spirits and history because it was firmly taken up during sports competitions leading to the initiative of Dr Harry Edwards, Tommie Smith and John Carlos. Claiming the fact that despite their success and integration as sportsmen, they remained black men from a poor community. The black struggle is more than just about integration and assimilation. It’s about empowering a specific community.
“-Do you think you represented all black athletes doing this?”
“I can say that I represented black America. I am very proud to be a black man and also to have won a gold medal. And I thought I could represent my people by letting them know that I’m proud to be a black man.”
Tommie Smith answering questions from a reporter the day after his action.