Wednesday, February 07, 2007

1968 Olympic Black Power Salute

The guy in the middle is Tommie Smith. The gentleman on the right is John Carlos. This picture was taken at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City.


A poster of this photograph graces the wall of my office. It's the first thing people see when they walk in. In grad school I had a photocopy of this picture taped inside the library cubicle where I read for exams.

I love this picture. Not only is it just a powerful image, a beautiful composition, it symbolizes for me much of the dilemma of being black in America.

In 1967, at the height of the black power/black unity movement, amateur black athletes organized the Olympic Project for Human Rights to call for a boycott of the 1968 Olympics. They issued this statement:

“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?”

What's a black Olympic level athlete supposed to do in this situation? Because of course the OPHR is right. We still point to black success in college and porfessional sports as a sign of progress, even when so many other signs point to the contrary. But, then again, some athletes, like Tommie Smith and John Carlos, believed that they were black men *and* athletes. And not just athletes, they were runners. They were in full support of the cause of OPHR, but they also knew they'd never be that fast again. How could they not compete?

They medaled in their event and then stood barefoot on the medal stand and gave the black power salute. Then the US Olympic Committee stripped them of their medals and evicted them from the Olympic Village.

And the white guy in the picture? Australian runner and silver medalist Peter Norman. He wore an OPHR badge in support of the athletes. He was ostracized in Australia, failed to make the 1972 team (despite coming in third in trials) and became a depressed, heavy drinker. He died last year. Tommie Smith and John Carlos were pallbearers at his funeral.

You can read more about here.

15 comments:

Alison said...

Damn. I never knew all the backstory to that image. I'd always seen it as an example of heroic protest--I didn't realize that Tommie Smith and John Carlos were seen as sellouts to some activists for even going to the Olympics. But you're right--how could they not compete?

Is it worth my asking if their medals were ever returned to them, if the govt. ever apologized? I'm sure I already know the answer.

Conseula said...

They never got their medals back. At that same Olympics George Foreman won the gold in boxing. He danced around the ring waving an American flag to show that he wasn't associated with them.

Nassoma said...

Actually, the medals were asked for but Tommie and John were not stupid, they did not give them back the medals. I met Dr. Tommie Smith just Sunday for a book signing of his new book "Silent Gesture" and with the positive spirit he has he's not waiting on a apology.

Conseula said...

Yes, someone else in another post said that they weren't actually stripped of their medals. In fact, it seems that the US Olympic Committee asked them to leave when the IOC insisted (and threatened to throw out the entire US team). Thanks for the comment.

Lori said...

Hey,
It's me again (smile). There is so much great stuff here, I don't know where to start or stop . . .

Anyway, my hubby ran track (way back in the day) and he still idolizes Tommie Smith and John Carlos. Interestingly enough, my spouse is one of the most non-militant Blk man I've ever met (LOL) So his fascination with these guys puzzles me. I think perhaps it was the times . . . growing up in Memphis, during the 70's and all . . .

In any case, keep up the good work! I'll have to come back when I have time to read more.

Conseula said...

Thanks for reading Lori! I'm headed over to your blog right now.

Gunfighter said...

Those guys are among my heroes.

Anonymous said...

Just to hear these testimonies bring tears to my eyes, due to my own personal sacrifice, and appreciation for what these brave men stood for. Shortly after this event I spent a short tour in Viet Nam from October 15, 1968, whereas I was medically evacuated to Japan in March of 1969. In April 1969, in order to stage a protest to the similar dilemma existing within the US Army during in those days, and in commemoration to what these brave men stood for. Myself and 3 other brave men stood in a military event with our fists clenched high, during the National Anthem/American Allegiance, to signify in solitude, and protest with what Tommie and John stood for. As a result we all were disciplined radically by court martials, and military Article 15’s. As God would have it, a First Sergeant in attempt to save us, and sacrifice himself stood with us. He was court martialed, kicked out of the Army, and lost the entirety of his military career benefits on our behalf. We never got a chance to thank him for his "Good Will" jester, but was eternally grateful. So am I eternally grateful for the example both Tommie Smith, and John Carlos set by the sacrifice they made before the whole world. B.J.

Juan Mendez said...

I am quite shocked by the act of solidarity from the comment above. That really impresses me as I am also impressed by the three great athletes. If I were black I will be proud of this moment in history, still I am proud of them. And yes, they showed not only they were great athletes but also were part of their community, and list their fists in a sign of saying enough we want the same civil rights. It sounds really stupid to even question their solidarity and were ridiculed by the media back then.

Power to the people.

Anonymous said...

Im doing a P.E internal for these two couragous men in New Zealand. I feel very strongly about this topic and feel everyone should be treated fairly. Smith and Carlos awared the whole world about racism and poverty in Black America. Big up's to these guys from NZ!!!
-Paige

Emma said...

My dad is Peter Norman, the Australian in this picture. Dad would be extremely proud to read all of the heart felt and inspiring words in the comments above. There is a movie out called 'Salute - The Peter Norman Story' which you might be interested in watching. Dad was my hero for many reasons and I feel honoured to read that Dad, Tommie & John made a difference in this world forever. Thanks Conseula

Conseula said...

Wow--thanks so much for the comment Emma. Your dad's story is one of the most tragic elements of this whole thing.

Emma said...

I know what you mean. I find great comfort in knowing that he lived life to the absolute fullest & packed in more adventures than most people could in 2 lifetimes! Although there were elements of great tragedy, Dad never flinched and certainly never regretted standing up for what he believed in. Dad would not have changed a thing.

Terrell said...

I was 14 when I watched Tommie and John make their stand in Mexico City. Was I proud because of what they did?...I was a 14 black kid living in San Francisco...the whole world was trying to make a statement then...Am I a better person because of their stand? No. I'm now 55 and I am a retired decorated military officer. I cannot judge either whether what Tommie and John was right or wrong...I never walked a mile in their shoes. But I know this, the inner city black kid in my current hometown of Chicago never heard of Tommie and John much less what they did at the 1968 olympic and what is sad they don't care who they were or what they attempted to accomplish...they don't give a damn.

Craig Dampeer said...

Does anyone know if they awarded Gold and Silver to Third and fourth place runners, and were they scratched from the Olympic records?