It was the most popular medal ceremony of all time. The photographs of two black American sprinters standing on the medal podium with heads bowed and fists raised at the Mexico City Games in 1968 not only represent one of the most memorable moments in Olympic history but a milestone in America’s civil rights movement.
The two men were Tommie Smith and John Carlos. Teammates at San Jose State University, Smith and Carlos were stirred by the suggestion of a young sociologist friend Harry Edwards, who asked them and all the other black American athletes to join together and boycott the games. The protest, Edwards hoped, would bring attention to the fact that America’s civil rights movement had not gone far enough to eliminate the injustices black Americans were facing. Edwards’ group, the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR), gained support from several world-class athletes and civil rights leaders but the all-out boycott never materialized.
Still impassioned by Edwards’ words, Smith and Carlos secretly planned a non-violent protest in the manner of Martin Luther King, Jr. In the 200-meter race, Smith won the gold medal and Carlos the bronze. As the American flag rose and the Star-Spangled Banner played, the two closed their eyes, bowed their heads, and began their protest.
Smith later told the media that he raised his right, black-glove-covered fist in the air to represent black power in America while Carlos’ left, black-covered fist represented unity in black America. Together they formed an arch of unity and power. The black scarf around Smith’s neck stood for black pride and their black socks (and no shoes) represented black poverty in racist America.
While the protest seems relatively tame by today’s standards, the actions of Smith and Carlos were met with such outrage that they were suspended from their national team and banned from the Olympic Village, the athletes’ home during the games.
A lot of people thought that political statements had no place in the supposedly apolitical Olympic Games. Those that opposed the protest cried out that the actions were militant and disgraced Americans. Supporters, on the other hand, were moved by the duo’s actions and praised them for their bravery. The protest had lingering effects for both men, the most serious of which were death threats against them and their families.
Smith and Carlos were honored in 1998 to commemorate the 30th anniversary of their protest.
An interesting side note to the protest was that the 200m silver medallist in 1968, Peter Norman of Australia (who is white), participated in the protest that evening by wearing a OPHR badge.