1968: The Year of the Fist
"It was inevitable that this revolt of the black athlete should develop. With struggles being waged by black people in the areas of education, housing employment and many others, it was only a matter of time before Afro-American athletes shed their fantasies and delusions and asserted their manhood and faced the facts of their existence.."
Dr. Harry Edwards
It has been 35 years since a son of a migrant worker named Tommy Smith and Harlem's John Carlos took the medal stand at the 1968 Olympics and created what is arguably the most enduring image in sports history. But while the image has stood the test of time, the politics that led to that moment has been cast aside by capitalism's commitment to political amnesia; its political teeth extracted.
Smith and Carlos's stunning gesture of revolt and resistance was not the product of some spontaneous urge to get face time on the evening news, but was a product of the black athletes' revolt in the 1960s.
In the fall of 1967 amateur black athletes formed OPHR Olympic Project for Human Rights to organize a boycott of the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.
OPHR, and its lead organizer Dr. Harry Edwards, was very influenced by the Black Freedom struggle. It's goal was to expose how the US used black athletes to project a lie both at home and internationally.
In their founding statement they wrote,
"We must no longer allow this country to use a few so called Negroes to point out to the world how much progress she has made in solving her racial problems when the oppression of Afro-Americans in is greater than it ever was. We must no longer allow the sports world to pat itself on the back as a citadel of racial justice when the racial injustices of the sports world are infamously legendary... any black person who allows himself to be used in the above matter is a traitor because he allows racist whites the luxury of resting assured that those black people in the ghettos are there because that is where they want to be. So we ask why should we run in Mexico only to crawl home?"
OPHR had three central demands:
1 - "Restore Muhammad Ali's title."
Ali's title had been stripped earlier that year for his resistance to the Viet-Nam draft. By expressing solidarity with Ali, they also were expressing their opposition to the war.
2 - "Remove Avery Brundage as head of the United States Olympic Committee."
Brundage was a notorious white supremacist who is best remembered today for sealing the deal on Hitler hosting the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
3 - "Disinvite South Africa and Rhodesia."
This was a conscious effort to express internationalism with the black freedom struggles occurring in these two apartheid states.
The IOC buckled on the third demand, banning Rhodesia and South Africa. This took the wind out of the sails of a broader boycott. But many athletes were still determined to make a stand.
The lead up to the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City were electric with struggle. Already in 1968 the world had seen the weaknesses of US imperialism at the Tet offensive in Viet-Nam; the Prague Spring, where Czech students challenged the Stalinist tanks, the assassination of Martin Luther King and the mass revolts that followed, the growth of the Black Panther Party in the United States, and the largest general strike in world history in France. Then, On October 2, ten days before the Games opened, the Mexican security forces massacred hundreds of students in Mexico City who were occupying the National University.
Although the harassment and intimidation of athletes supporting OPHR was not even close to the massacre of the students and their supporters, the intention was the same--to stifle protest.
It was on the second day that Smith and Carlos took their stand. First Smith set a world record. Then he took out the gloves. When the silver medallist, a runner from Australia named Peter Norman saw what was happening, he ran into the stands to grab an OPHR patch off a supporters' chest to show his solidarity on the medal stand.
When the U.S. flag began rising up the flagpole and the anthem played, the two men bowed their heads and raised their fists in a black power salute.
But there was more than the gloves. Smith and Carlos also wore no shoes to protest black poverty; and beads to protest lynching.
Within hours, Smith and Carlos were expelled from the Olympic Village and were stripped of their medals. Avery Brundage justified this by saying, "They violated one of the basic principles of the Olympic Games: that politics play no part whatsoever in them."
The LA Times accused Smith and Carlos of a "Nazi-like salute."
Time Magazine had the Olympic logo but instead of the motto Faster, Higher, Stronger, had "Angrier, Nastier, Uglier."
But if they were being attacked from all corners, they received support from unlikely sources.
The Olympic Crew Team, all white and entirely from Harvard, issued a statement:
"We -as individuals- have been concerned about the place of the black man in American society in their struggle for equal rights. As members of the US Olympic team, each of us has come to feel a moral commitment to support our black teammates in their efforts to dramatize the injustices and inequities which permeate out society."
OPHR and the actions of Smith and Carlos were a terrific slap in the face to the hypocrisy at the heart of the Olympics. However, there was a deep flaw mirrored in other aspects of the New Left and the Black Power movement in that women were largely shut out. Many of the calls were about reclaiming manhood, as if African-American women weren't victims of racism or couldn't be a strong voice against it.
The foolishness of this move was quickly seen because many women athletes were major voices of solidarity after the fact. The anchor of the women's gold medal wining 4x100 team, Wyomia Tyus said, "I'd like to say that we dedicate our relay win to John Carlos and Tommy Smith."
It was a watershed moment of resistance. But Carlos and Smith are not merely creatures of nostalgia. As we build resistance today to war, theirs is a living history we should celebrate
As Tommy Smith said recently of his frozen moment, "It's not something I can lay on my shelf and forget about. My heart and soul are still on that team, and I still believe everything we were trying to fight for in 1968 has not been resolved and will be part of our future.