Five decades before Colin Kaepernick and the current crop of disgruntled NFL players utilized silent protest to bring international attention to the plight of Americanized Africans in the land of the free, U.S. Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos seized a moment in time to be eternally etched in the annals of Black Power history. This past Monday marked the 49th anniversary of one of the most incendiary acts of protest committed by athletes.
Oct. 16, 1968, during the medal ceremony after their 200-meter race at that year’s summer Olympic Games in Mexico City, Mexico, African-American sprinters Smith and Carlos, defiantly lowered their heads, thrust their black leather-gloved fists skyward while standing shoeless on the podium as the United States national anthem played.
“I looked at my feet in my high socks and thought about all the Black poverty I’d seen from Harlem to East Texas,” Carlos explained in his memoir, “The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment That Changed the World.” “I fingered my beads and thought about the pictures I’d seen of the ‘strange fruit’ swinging from the poplar trees of the South.”
Both men were dressed to protest, as an international TV audience observed, discarding their running shoes on their way to the podium, wearing black socks, which symbolized African-American poverty, and a black glove, which represented Black strength and unity. Smith wore a scarf, and Carlos wore beads, reflecting America’s lynching victims.
Carlos covered up the USA on his uniform with a black T-shirt, he wrote, to “reflect the shame I felt that my country was traveling at a snail’s pace toward something that should be obvious to all people of goodwill.”
He added. “Then the anthem started and we raised our fists into the air.”
They had one pair of gloves that they split, Smith taking the right hand and Carlos taking the left.
“As the anthem began and the crowd saw us raise our fists, the stadium became eerily quiet,” Carlos recalled. “For a few seconds, you honestly could have heard a frog piss on cotton. There’s something awful about hearing 50,000 people go silent, like being in the eye of a hurricane.”
The crowd began booing as photographers clicked away at the three men—including Australia’s Peter Norman, who won Silver in the race—standing, wearing Olympic Project for Human Rights badges.
Smith said they, “were just trying to bring attention to injustice in the U.S.”
He continued, “I don’t like the idea of people looking at it as negative. There was nothing but a raised fist in the air and a bowed head, acknowledging the American flag, not symbolizing a hatred for it.”
At the time, mass anti-Vietnam War protests were occurring across the country, Muhammad Ali’s boxing license had recently been revoked for refusing induction into the military and Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy had been assassinated.
By taking a courageous stance, they risked everything and were suspended and banned from the Olympic Stadium. They also received death threats.
Carlos, a native Harlemite, said, “I had a moral obligation to step up. Morality was a far greater force than the rules and regulations they had.”
Often overlooked is the fact that Smith won the race in a world-record 19.83 seconds.
Neither man regrets his actions, which captured the sentiment of that era and also immortalized them.
“I went up there as a dignified Black man and said, ‘What’s going on is wrong,’” Carlos stated. Smith added, “It was a cry for freedom and for human rights. We had to be seen because we couldn’t be heard.”