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Michael McKinleyOctober 16, 2018
U.S. athletes Tommie Smith, center, and John Carlos, right, extend their fists during the national anthem after Smith received the gold and Carlos the bronze in the 200-meter run at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. At left is Australian Peter Norman, the silver medalist. (AP photo)

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.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
JR Cosgrove
3 years 11 months ago

We should discuss just what are blacks protesting in the United States today. It's not racial injustice by anyone. The United States is the least racist industrialized country in the world. Only fixing an actual problem will do any good. Protesting a bogus issue will not help anyone.

I suggest all authors and commenters read "Death of a Nation" to see who are the real racist today in the US.

JR Cosgrove
3 years 11 months ago

Orlando Patterson, a black sociologist at Harvard, said about 20 years ago concerning the United States

America while still flawed in its race relations ... is now the least racist white- majority society in the world; has a better record of legal protection of minorities than any other society, white or black; offers more opportunities to a greater number of black persons than any other society, including all those of Africa .
Dionys Murphy
3 years 11 months ago

"We should discuss just what are blacks protesting in the United States today." - Being murdered by police officers, racially profiled, targeted, continuing to be served injustices in a justice system that isn't blind, suffering from generations upon generations of poverty triggered by slavery over hundreds of years and inequity in the American justice system.

"to see who are the real racist today in the US." - It's primarily the conservatives and neo-Trumpians who are targeting people of color intentionally. Any other assertion is untenable and laughable.

JR Cosgrove
3 years 11 months ago

You are the gift that keeps on giving. Just about everything you say is baseless but it makes a good polemic. For example, what evidence do you have that police are murdering blacks? Statistics show they are less likely to be shot at than a white person involved in a criminal activity.

Dionys Murphy
3 years 11 months ago

It's amazing you think you can just lie, like Trump, and get away with it. Blacks are 2.5+ times more likely to be killed in police shootings than whites. Statistics.

JR Cosgrove
3 years 11 months ago

No lie. Blacks account for 50-55% of violent crime so they are shot at more. Men are killed by police at a rate about 20 times greater than women. Are police biased against men?. No men commit more violent crime. For those committing violent crime a white person is more likely to be shot. You should be asking why blacks commit so much violent crime today when years ago that was not true? That is starting to get at the necessary questions to be asked.

Mike Macrie
3 years 11 months ago

I don’t agree to paint a picture on all Conservatives being racist however I do agree with most of what you said. People who love the status quo of injustice for people of color would like this to go away. They think Police like Priests can do no wrong. Trump has no shame on anything or anyone who does not share his White Nationalist views. Yes I support taking a knee whenever there is injustice and that includes out of control Police where many should be carrying traffic stop signs instead of a gun.

JR Cosgrove
3 years 11 months ago

Except everything you say is nonsense. You are defaming anyone you disagree with based on bogus beliefs. I suggest you read "Death of a Nation" about racism in America and Heather MacDonald about the truth on police involvement in Black communities. I would then reconsider the basis for your perceptions.

Trent Shannon
3 years 11 months ago

J if you don't understand it, don't comment on it

Youre digging the hole of indignant, minimising "white folk" everywhere with your ignorance.

Black Lives Matter. BBQ Becky = racial profiling. One Time's got no case. Please learn this

JR Cosgrove
3 years 11 months ago

if you don't understand it, don't comment on it

I haven't a clue what you are talking about. Blacks have a really tough time in the US but it is not due to racism by whites or police violence. Sure some of that exists but not to the extent suggested. What causes perceptions to differ from reality? Unless the real issues are addressed nothing will get solved.

JR Cosgrove
3 years 11 months ago

Here is a link to a Washington Post article on who police shoot at by race

Terry Kane
3 years 11 months ago

J Cosgrove - It is sad that so many commenters here cannot see what is actually happening. The media lie to us, and too few people seek the truth. It seems that this magazine is not a place to find truth (or Catholicism) - unfortunately, this is a leftist site which supports a more powerful state and less individualism for the citizens.
Plato saw what was going on and wrote about it in The Allegory of the Cave. Our education system no longer teaches that lesson because it is not part of the "narrative."
I applaud your attempts to show the light to the deluded, however, I fear the old adage is true - there is none so blind as he who will not see.
Good luck!

JR Cosgrove
3 years 11 months ago

The really interesting question is why the false perception about police brutality especially amongst blacks. Who is responsible for these false impressions. Obviously the author and the editors of America have bought into it as well as many commenters.

Randal Agostini
3 years 11 months ago

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that discrimination exists in America - but to a lesser degree than probably any other country in the world.
One of the most significant foundations about the American success story is the freedom of movement. This has allowed America to become the largest cultural melting pot of any society. An unfortunate side effect is the necessity for Americans to keep swimming upstream, for failure has an ugly outcome, because of the lack of larger family support groups. There is one exception to this rule, which has been the American Black experience, which has been the total responsibility of successive Democratic governments. It has been Democrats that thrive on division, categorizing people so that they can convince everyone to pay more taxes to grow government and equalize society. We see this in the black ghettoes in all the major cities of America - where the largess is centered around distribution centers that maintain poverty and dependency. We see this in the schools of black districts where failure is designed into the system.
It is shameful that America - this magazine, is incapable of seeing past this charade. As a Catholic organization we should understand more than anyone else the dignity of Man, which is not supposed to be dependent upon dependency.

John Edwards
3 years 11 months ago

The full story behind the 1968 Olympic image is hiding in plain sight. There are three men--not two--who are protesting. Notice that all three are wearing the same (unauthorized) badge of sociologist Harry Edward's Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR). Peter Norman, the Australian silver medalist, supported and encouraged Tommy Smith and John Carlos both before and after the ceremony. In fact, when John Carlos said that he had forgotten his black gloves, it was Peter Norman that suggested that Smith and Carlos wear one each.
Peter Norman grew up as a devout Christian in the Salvation Army. He supported Smith and Carlos after they were dismissed from the Olympic Village.
Fast forward 38 years. In 2006 Tommy Smith and John Carlos flew to Melbourne, Australia to show their respect for their long-standing mate, and to give eulogies and be pall-bearers at Peter Norman's funeral.
This is a story of cross-national, cross-racial respect and affection over nearly 40 years.
(The Peter Norman entry in Wikipedia gives a fuller account, but there are a few minor errors).

JR Cosgrove
3 years 11 months ago

Thank you for this story.

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