we salute: tommie smith & john carlos, mexico city ’68

October 16, 2018
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It’s one of the most famous pictures of the 20th century, capturing an act that with coordinated motion spoke to an entire planet in real time, creating an image to be used and misinterpreted from that day on.

50 years ago today, at the Mexico City Olympic Games, the American sprinters, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, having placed first and third in the finals of the 200m dash, stepped up to the podium to receive their medals. (The Australian Peter Norman, who came in second, stood beside them.) As “The Star-Spangled Banner” began playing to salute the winner, Smith and Carlos bowed their heads and each raised a solitary fist adorned with a black glove up in the air. Their action found both men suspended from the U.S. Olympic team, and ostracized from American society for much of the next 40 years, anger fueled by the white media’s lust for vilification and caricature, and a dumbed-down public’s gross simplification of the salute’s meaning.

The image that Smith and Carlos presented with their action on that October night in Mexico City undoubtedly spoke to “Black Power,” and the experience of African-Americans in the land that they were brought to in chains, 103 years after their supposed emancipation. Yet the reason the athletes’ actions created a universal appeal — crossing national and race-based meaning, celebrated around the world even as Smith and Carlos were damned in America — was because they were designed to be. The image shows them shoeless, in black socks, adorned with not just gloves but scarves — and in Carlos’ case, beads. According to both men, the scarves symbolized lynching, the lack of shoes reflected poverty, and the gloves on their fists stood for the equality, freedom and power of people on all continents, working together.

In 1968, their message had deep resonance, with King and Kennedy murdered in the States, an anti-colonialist war in Vietnam, and recent student uprisings in Paris and Prague. In Mexico City itself, hundreds of anti-military student protesters were slaughtered just weeks before the games began. Smith and Carlos’ actions spoke to — if not for — all of the activists facing global challenges.

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Nor was theirs a rogue act by two individuals, as so many in media and in power tried to portray. Standing on the podium, Smith and Carlos wore buttons of the “Olympic Project for Human Rights.” (Norman wore one as well.) It was an organization founded by Harry Edwards, a sociology professor and activist at San Jose State (where Smith ran track); an organization created to, in Edwards’ words, “change the total perception and understanding of the role that sports played in black life in this country.”

Among OPHR’s planned actions was a boycott of the 1968 Olympics by African-American athletes, whose specific demands included the removal of a known anti-semite as head of the International Olympic Committee, and the banning of apartheid-era South Africa and Rhodesia from the competition. (Most famously, the basketball Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar chose not to go to these Olympic games as part of the protest.) Tommie Smith was among OPHR’s leading athlete-spokespeople; and John Carlos, whose political awakening took place during his Harlem youth where he considered Malcolm X a mentor, was deeply involved in the talks around the boycott. So though African-American athletes chose to attend the Games, both men were prepared to act.

50 years later, Smith and Carlos’ salute, and its purpose, reverberates more loudly than ever — especially in America. Not least because Harry Edwards represents a direct line from the sprinters’ action in Mexico City, to Colin Kaepernick’s taking a knee to protest American police violence against black lives, on the NFL sidelines. Edwards spent a portion of the last decade as an advisor to the San Francisco 49ers, and exerted a direct influence on Kaepernick by mentoring his activism and directing him to books such as The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

“[Colin] went through a transition, just like we all did in my time,” Edwards told the San Francisco Chronicle recently. “We were Negroes who became African-Americans who began to look at experiences through completely different eyes.”

LOS ANGELES, CA – JULY 16: (L-R) John Carlos and Tommie Smith accept the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage as they were given the award for their black-gloved fist salute at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics onstage at the 2008 ESPY Awards held at NOKIA Theatre L.A. LIVE on July 16, 2008 in Los Angeles, California. The 2008 ESPYs will air on Sunday, July 20 at 9PM ET on ESPN. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Speaking to the Smithsonian’s Civil Rights Project a few years ago, John Carlos said that the moment captured by the image from that night in Mexico City wasn’t simply a culmination of Earthly circumstances. “I say that what happened to us was a spiritual thing. Everything fell right.”