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.
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