On Oct. 16, 1968, at the Olympic medals ceremony in Mexico City, American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, along with Australian athlete Peter Norman, stirred controversy without uttering a sound with a move famously known as the “1968 Black Power Salute.”

That morning, track and field athlete Smith scored gold, winning the 200-meter dash in world-record time at 19.83 seconds. Norman took the silver, coming in second at 20.06 seconds, an Australian record, and Carlos took the bronze, placing third at 20.10 seconds.

After the race, Smith and Carlos told Norman about their plan to protest against racism in America and asked if he was with them. He was.

The drama began when the three went to the podium to receive their medals. Smith and Carlos stood shoeless, wearing Black socks to represent poverty in the Black community. Smith wore a Black scarf to represent Black pride. Carlos unzipped the top of his tracksuit to show solidarity with all blue-collar workers. He also wore a necklace of beads in honor of all those lost during the Middle Passage and slavery. All three wore the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) badges, for Norman who was a staunch critic of the “White Australia Policy.”

As the athletes turned to hear the ceremonial playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Smith and Carlos raised Black-gloved fists. With heads bowed, they kept their fists raised until the end of the anthem. Smith’s raised right fist represented Black power while Carlos’ raised left fist represented Black unity. It was Norman who suggested, after Carlos forgot his gloves, that he and Smith split gloves so they could both raise a fist. It was a strong, silent and powerful gesture that became one of the most iconic and controversial political symbols in history.

However, despite the nobility of their intention, it did not go over well. The crowed booed the three. International Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage declared that their actions were “unfit for the apolitical, international forum the Olympic Games was supposed to be.” He called for Smith and Carlos to be suspended from the U.S. team and banned from the Olympic Village. When the committee refused, Brundage threatened to ban the entire U.S. track team. This was the same Brundage who, as president of the U.S. Olympic Committee in 1936, had no such objection to the Nazi salutes during the Berlin Olympics. Smith and Carlos were expelled.

The salute was not well received in the United States either. Many agreed with Brundage that the Olympic Games were not the place for such a protest. However, others applauded the athletes for using a moment of personal triumph to put the struggles of their people in the spotlight.

There were no post-Olympic spoils, no big endorsements or fancy jobs waiting for them. The three were ostracized and criticized for their actions. Smith and Carlos and their families received death threats.

Smith continued his athletic career. He went on to play in the NFL with the Cincinnati Bengals and later became an assistant professor of physical education at Oberlin College. In 1995, he helped coach the U.S. team at the World Indoor Championships at Barcelona. He is now a public speaker.

Carlos took a similar career path, setting a record in 1969 in the 100-yard dash and later playing in the NFL with the Philadelphia Eagles. Today, he is the track and field coach at Palm Springs High School.

Norman fared the worst. Despite winning a silver medal and running a record-setting race in ’68, he was reprimanded by the Australian press, ostracized and blacklisted. He was excluded from the 1972 Olympics despite qualifying with world-beating times. He quit athletics in protest.

Norman died in 2006. Smith and Carlos were among his pallbearers. Smith praised Norman posthumously, describing him as “a man who believed right could never be wrong.”

Carlos recounted the conversation they had before going out for the medal ceremony. They asked Norman if he believed in human rights. He said he did. They asked him if he believed in God. Norman, who came from a Salvation Army background, said he believed strongly in God.

“We knew that what we were going to do was far greater than any athletic feat. He said, ‘I’ll stand with you.’” Carlos said he expected to see fear in Norman’s eyes. He didn’t. “I saw love. Peter never flinched. He never turned his eyes. He never turned his head. He never said so much as ‘ouch,’” said Smith in his 2007 autobiography, “Silent Gesture.” Smith also said the move was “not a Black power salute, but a human rights salute.”

The famous photo of the three athletes was declared by LIFE magazine as one of the 20 most influential images of the 20th century.

Activities

  • Look It Up: Use the Internet or other reference source to learn more about Tommie Smith, John Carlos and Peter Norman and the events surrounding the Black Power Salute of 1968.
  • Talk About It: Discuss the significance of the Black Power Salute of 1968. Why was it an important and brave stand to take? Do you think it helped or hurt the cause? Would you have done the same? Why or why not?
  • Write It Down: Write a letter to Avery Brundage, who, in 1968, was the president of the International Olympic Committee, supporting or condemning his demand to expel the athletes from the games because of their actions. Use facts to argue both sides of the situation. Read your letters out loud.

This Week in Black History

  • Oct. 15, 1883: The U.S. Supreme Court declares the Civil Rights Act of 1875 unconstitutional.
  • Oct. 16, 1995: Nation of Islam’s Minister Louis Farrakhan calls more than 1 million Black men to convene in Washington, D.C., for a “Day of Atonement and Reconciliation.”
  • Oct. 21, 1917: Jazz trumpet master John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie is born in Cheraw, S.C. Gillespie was one of the founders of the jazz style known as bebop.