With the Winter Olympics about to begin in Pyeongchang, South Korea, I recently was reminded of one of the greatest political protests in Olympic history.
During a visit to the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History & Culture here in Washington, I saw a statue depicting the powerful actions of American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City.
Each athlete raised a black-gloved fist during their medal ceremony for the 200-meters running event, in which Smith won the gold medal, in a then world record time of 19.83 seconds, and Carlos the bronze medal, clocking 20.10 seconds. Australian Peter Norman won the silver medal with a time of 20.06 seconds.
Smith and Carlos wore black socks and no shoes on the medals podium in Mexico City, and Smith wore a black scarf around his neck. All three medalists wore human rights badges on their jackets.
Speaking at a news conference in Mexico City after the event, Smith said the black scarf represented black pride and the black socks with no shoes symbolized black poverty in racist America.
In his autobiography, Silent Gesture, Smith said the demonstration was not a “Black Power” salute, but a “human rights” salute.
The athletes heard many boos when they left the podium, and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) condemned their political statement. Under pressure from the IOC, the U.S. Olympic Committee expelled Smith and Carlos from the Mexico City Games, and the athletes faced death threats and racial abuse when they returned to the United States.
Their Olympic protest, on October 16th, 1968, came about six months after civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated.
John Carlos says he was greatly influenced by King, and he talks here about meeting the Baptist minister in New York before the Mexico City Olympics.
John Carlos says he saw “love and compassion” when he looked in the eyes of Martin Luther King, Jr. He says he also saw love in the eyes of Australian silver medalist Peter Norman before the medal ceremony in Mexico City.
Carlos says he expected to see fear in Norman’s eyes, but Norman told him he believed in human rights and he believed in God.
During Norman’s funeral in 2006, the two front pallbearers helping carry his coffin were Tommie Smith and John Carlos.