Originally posted on the Tucson Citizen: Friday, October 28, 2005
(The black gloves) symbolize that it’s not how fast a guy runs, it’s what does he do when he gets there. Will he put his body, mind and soul on the line?
- Tommie Smith, 200 Meters Gold Medalist, 1968 Olympics.
There is often a misunderstanding of what the raised fists signified. It was about civil rights, equality for man.
-Peter Norman, 200 Meters Silver Medalist.
(By being barefoot) we wanted the world to know that in (the United States) people were still walking in poverty. The beads were for those individuals that were lynched…that no one said a prayer for.
-John Carlos, 200 Meters Bronze Medalist.
Last week, thirty-seven years after they shook the world at the 1968 Olympics in what has been described as “one of the most symbolic political gestures in the history of sports in the United States,” black sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos were acknowledged by their alma mater, San Jose State University.
In 1968, Smith and Carlos accepted their medals barefoot. On their necks, Smith wore a black scarf (for black pride) and Carlos beads.
During the Star Spangled Banner, Smith and Carlos, each wearing a black glove, bowed their heads, and Smith raised his right hand and Carlos his left in the Black Power salute.
In solidarity, Norman, who is white, wore an Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) button. Smith holds a box with an olive branch, symbolizing peace.
1968 was a tumultuous year. America was embroiled in Vietnam and a domestic anti-war movement. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. Fifty thousand people marched in the Poor Peoples Campaign and set up Resurrection City in Washington D.C. Chicago police waged war on youth demonstrators at the Democratic Convention.
Right before the start of the Olympics, the Mexican army killed close to 300 students who were protesting the government’s exorbitant spending on athletic facilities for the Olympics even as millions of Mexicans lived in abject poverty.
The tumult of 1968 carried over to sports. Bill Russell, having led the Celtics to the championship, called Boston a “flea market of racism” when his house was vandalized by racist graffiti. Muhammad Ali asked, “Can they take my title without me being whupped?” after being stripped of his heavyweight title for resisting the draft.
As leaders of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, Smith and Carlos wanted to organize a black boycott of the Olympics to bring attention to the injustices black Americans were facing. Some Olympians agreed to wear OPHR buttons, others to demonstrate once they got to the games, but there was little support for a boycott (basketball players Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Lucius Allen, and Mike Warren did boycott the games). So they decided on their “Black Power Salute” protest.
Smith’s and Carlos’ action got them expelled from the Olympic Village and suspended from the Games. That was just the start of the retribution visited upon them, according to various news accounts.
When they returned home, Smith recalled, “The ridicule was great, but it went deeper than us personally.” It went “to our (siblings) and our parents. My mother died of a heart attack in 1970 as a result of pressure delivered to her from manure and dead rats (sent) in the mail. My brothers in high school were kicked off the football team, my brother in Oregon had his scholarship taken away.”
Carlos said, “They finally figured out they could pierce my armor by breaking up my family and they did that.” His wife committed suicide, which he attributes in part to the viciousness of the backlash.
No one would hire them. “We were under tremendous economic strain,” said Carlos.
Fast forward to October 17, 2005: a 20-foot statue of Smith and Carlos in their Olympic pose was unveiled at San Jose State University as “a fitting tribute to two amazing athletes who rose to their moment in time” (earlier, honorary doctorates were conferred on them).
Carlos objected that the statue doesn’t include Norman, but Norman endorsed the design. The empty space is to allow students to stand in the statue and speak out on issues. “I love that idea,” said Norman.
At the ceremony, Smith said, “We felt a need to represent people who had no platform.” And Carlos said, “you cannot regret what you knew, to the very core of your person, was right.”
Oh, to have the likes of Smith and Carlos, Norman, Ali, Abdul-Jabbar, Allen, and Warren again.
Instead, we have Nike spokesman Michael Jordan, who refused to endorse fellow North Carolinian Harvey Gant over the racist Jesse Helms for U.S. Senate because “Republicans buy shoes too.” And who dismissed questions about Nike’s slave-labor sweatshops with, “My job is to endorse shoes.”
And Tiger Woods, who refused to support a boycott of Augusta National Golf Club for its policy of excluding women from membership. And Charles Barkley, who defended his endorsement of Nike shoes, which many poor kids cannot afford, by saying: “They don’t stop selling Mercedes Benzes just because some people can’t afford them, do they?”
Paraphrasing the 1960s song: where have all the principles gone? c/s
Salomón R. Baldenegro is a political historian and activist. The “c/s” at the end of his column is a Chicano barrio term for “con safos,” which has no literal translation but conveys closure: “that’s it” or “that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.”
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