The 1960’s were a landmark period in American history. It was a decade in which we saw the assassination of two Kennedys (one of which was the commander in chief) Also we saw the killing of two prominent civil rights leaders in Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., not to mention the growing discontent amongst Americans (particularly in the black community) with President Johnson and his policies concerning involvement in the Vietnam War. However, it was a small display at the 1968 Olympic games in Mexico City by American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos that over time, has made a significant impact not only on the sports world, but on civil rights and American history.
On October 16, 1968, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, after winning the gold and bronze medals respectively in the 200-meter relay, walked up to podium to accept their awards. It was clear something was up. Both sprinters had one black glove on each hand (Smith’s on the right, Carlos’ on the left) They had taken their shoes off and were wearing black socks. They both had beads around their necks. John Carlos had his Olympic jacket unzipped. Smith had a scarf around his neck (It’s important to note that Australian sprinter Peter Norman, who won the silver, wore an Olympic Human Rights pin in support of their cause) There were many things wrong with this picture to Olympic officials, however the climax of the demonstration was yet to come.
When the singing of the National Anthem began, Carlos and Smith lowered their heads and raised their gloved fists in the air. This sent shockwaves throughout the world. The Olympic games, as so vehemently stated by the then President of the International Olympic Committee, Avery Brundage, was supposed to be an event where political ideals and affiliations had no place. Smith and Carlos were promptly suspended from the U.S. team and ordered to leave the Olympic Village. Though people think this demonstration was mostly spontaneous, its roots were planted years earlier.
Tommie Smith grew up in California and was always aware, as was Juan Carlos who came from Harlem, of the plight of blacks in the United States. When Smith enrolled at San Jose State University and John Carlos soon after, they were heavily influenced by a professor of Sociology named Harry Edwards. Edwards’ radical ideals helped reinforce Smith’s views. Thru small demonstrations and protests, Edwards helped bring rumblings of a boycott of the 68’ games to the front page. It also helped Edwards, along with a man named Ken Noel, form the Olympics Project for Human Rights. Its function thru demonstrations like the February, 1968 boycott of the New York Athletic Club’s centennial track meet, was to make statement about discrimination in sports. Avery Brundage promptly made it known that any such demonstrations at the games in Mexico City would result in severe consequences. This only ignited the young athletes’ fire.
The protest at the 1968 games in Mexico City have been dissected throughout the years not only for its impact, but for the symbolism involved in the protest itself. There were so many layers to peel, and different ways they could be interpreted. The black gloves rose forming an arc sort of shape, symbolizing unity among black people. The bare feet with black socks representing poverty in the black community. The beads around their necks were used to make a statement about lynching throughout history. John Carlos had his jacket unzipped (which was a taboo at the time) in honor of blue-collar workers. These symbols were what lead to this protest having such a lasting legacy. Initially, however Tommie Smith and John Carlos were not the iconic figures they are now.
In the aftermath of the events in Mexico City, outside of the black community the rest of society largely ostracized Carlos and Smith. Tommie Smith couldn’t find a job, and had to travel the country just to make ends meet. John Carlos also suffered thru a period of severe depression, aided by the suicide of his wife a few years after the games.
Eventually Smith and Carlos were recognized as pivotal figures in American history, in particular the civil rights movement. In 2005, a statue was erected of Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the campus of San Jose State University, almost literally cementing their legacy. The image of Smith, Carlos and Norman standing at the podium has become one of the most iconic images of the 1960’s, and the effects of their protest can be felt decades later.