An Olympic salute to black power: what it means 50 years later
On Oct. 16, 1968, the world saw the televised images and photographs of American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos standing on the victor’s podium at the 1968 Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City, their clenched, black-gloved hands raised to proclaim African-American power, their feet shoeless, to represent African-American poverty, and their heads lowered, to remember African-American lynching victims.
They were on the podium as the U.S. flag rose and the “Star Spangled Banner” rang out to honor Smith’s gold medal in the 200-meter race—where he set a world record of 19.8 seconds—and Carlos’s bronze. Their message was about honor, too, one based on justice and directly aimed at their country. “We are black and we are proud to be black,” Smith said later. “White America will only give us credit for an Olympic victory. They’ll say I’m an American, but if I did something bad, they’d say ‘a Negro.’ Black America was with us all the way through.”
The Olympic Games were another kind of church, with a sacred torch illuminating the altar and an oath to play fair being the prayer that the athletes said. Smith and Carlos were, in a way, yelling at God for some much-needed social fair play.
The Olympic Games were another kind of church, with a sacred torch illuminating the altar and an oath to play fair being the prayer that the athletes said.
The Olympic Games began in the 5th century B.C.E. as a peaceful religious event held every four years, halting war to pay homage to the gods. Religious officials reviewed the athletes as they marched into the arena, and the athletes’ olive-leaved victory laurels came from a grove dedicated to Zeus. The Games vanished for 1,500 years until the Jesuit-educated Pierre de Coubertin, a French aristocrat, revived them in 1894. De Coubertin was inspired by Thomas Arnold, a Church of England deacon and disciple of "muscular Christianity," where athletic achievement combined with Christian devotion could make moral and ethical men (women would not compete until 1900).
By the time Smith and Carlos made their stand, 1968 had rampaged over ethics and morals. The war in Vietnam was bleeding out: 534 U.S. soldiers were killed in action during that October, bringing the year’s total to more than 5,000 American deaths. At home, civil-rights messiah Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April; civil-rights crusader Robert F. Kennedy was murdered in June. Riots broke out across the United States after King’s murder—the so-called Holy Week Riots—killing another 39 people. And just days before the Olympic Games began, police and soldiers massacred more than 300 student and civilian protesters in a Mexico City neighborhood. Calls for justice were met with injustice everywhere.
In April 1967, heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali refused induction into the U.S. Army, saying, “I ain’t got no quarrel with those Vietcong.” In June, Ali was convicted of draft evasion, sentenced to five years in prison, fined $10,000 and banned from boxing for three years. An African-American icon of sport had been excommunicated by the state for his non serviam, and it was in this supercharged air that many African-American athletes joined the Olympic Project for Human Rights. It was organized by sociologist Harry Edwards, who taught at San Jose State University, where Smith and Carlos trained. Many black athletes talked of boycotting the 1968 games.
As they wrestled with the idea of rejecting a chance to compete for gold for themselves and their country to instead stand up against inequality, white America heard of the plot. Outraged letters landed in the December 1967 issue of Track and Field Magazine.
“Smith: Thanks for pulling out.... I quit being interested in watching a bunch of animals like Negroes go through their paces. Please see what you can do about withdrawing Negroes from... boxing, baseball and football.”
“How much are the Communists paying you to make damn fools out of your fellow Americans?”
Martin Luther King Jr., however, then in his last months of life, saw the proposed boycott as a step forward. Reverend Andrew Young, director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, reported, “Dr. King told me that ‘this represents a new spirit of concern on the part of successful Negroes for those who remain impoverished.’”
In the end, America’s black athletes decided to participate in the Olympics and do as their consciences commanded. The reaction to the podium protest by Smith and Carlos was swift and scathing. The two athletes were expelled—or excommunicated—from the Olympic Games, and Brent Musburger, then reporting for the Chicago American, called them “black-skinned storm troopers.”
At home, Smith and Carlos received death threats and were kicked off the U.S. track team, though neither President Lyndon B. Johnson, who had signed the Civil Rights Act, nor Republican presidential contender Richard Nixon, running on law and order, said anything about the protest publicly. In time, what was then seen as an ungrateful affront to white America became a heroic stand for equality, with San Jose State erecting a statue to Smith and Carlos in 2005.
In time, what was then seen as an ungrateful affront to white America became a heroic stand for equality.
Forty-eight years after Smith and Carlos, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick followed their lead when he began to take a knee during the U.S. national anthem in protest of the continued persecution of black people and people of color. Playing the national anthem before the start of N.F.L. games began during World War II. The N.F.L. kept the tradition, but it was not until 2009 that players began to stand on the sidelines during the anthem (except during the Super Bowl and after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001).
In 2015, Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake released a report revealing that, between 2012 and 2015, the Department of Defense had given $6.8 million to 50 professional sports teams for what the senators called “paid patriotism” events before professional sports games, which included flag waving, military glorifying and no small amount of recruiting. However, many teams offered this patriotic buffet without money from the military, and there was nothing in N.F.L. contracts to compel players to stand during the anthem. Even so, this arena of sports became equated with national honor, a kind of church of patriotism on Sunday afternoons. Once upon a time playing sports on the Sabbath would have been unthinkable for Christian athletes, but now, breaking from the prayerful patriotic script that had been paid for by the Department of Defense and enshrined by N.F.L owners was heresy.
When N.F.L. quarterback Tim Tebow (who is white) first took a knee and lowered his head in devotion to Jesus after scoring a touchdown, he spawned a cultural meme—Tebowing. When Kaepernick, who is black, did the same during the national anthem to protest racial injustice, something many argue Jesus would do, the N.F.L. excommunicated him—which Kaepernick is suing the league to prove, as he has not been able to get another N.F.L. job since. Kaepernick’s protest also motivated other athletes, black and white, to follow his lead, with many holding aloft their clenched fists in protest as did Williams and Carlos 50 years ago.
Colin Kaepernick is the Tommie Smith and John Carlos of his generation. And now it is the cameras in the church of corporate advertising that will continue to send the message that they launched a half-century ago.
Before the start of the 2018 N.F.L. season, Donald Trump attacked the N.F.L.’s protesting players, tweeting, “Wow, NFL first game ratings are way down over an already really bad last year comparison. Viewership declined 13%, the lowest in over a decade. If the players stood proudly for our Flag and Anthem, and it is all shown on broadcast, maybe ratings could come back? Otherwise worse!”
Of course, in 2018 no one could actually see what the players were doing to protest because no network was televising the national anthem—not the Sunday networks, nor ESPN on Monday nights. The cameras that had captured Smith’s and Carlos’s historic protest had now looked away, and the only people who would bear witness were those in the stadium. It is difficult to believe that this is where we are 50 years after that historic night in Mexico City. It is not what Tommie Smith and John Carlos could have imagined when they took their stand.
Nor could anyone have imagined that in September 2018, Colin Kaepernick would be announced as the face of Nike’s new ad campaign to celebrate the 30th anniversary of its “Just Do It” slogan. Despite outraged patriots burning their Nike gear, Nike is betting that Kaepernick’s face can reset the conversation about race in the United States. Colin Kaepernick is the Tommie Smith and John Carlos of his generation. And now it is the cameras in the church of corporate advertising that will continue to send the message that they launched a half-century ago.