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On the eve of the opening of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, especially in light of the persecution of the LGBT population in Russia, it seemed appropriate to recall the courageous actions taken by Olympic athletes back in 1968 during the Olympic Games in Mexico City.

1968 was a year of protest, strife, revolution and tragedy across the world. It witnessed uprisings in the Western European countries of France, Germany and Italy, demonstrations in Spain against the dictator Francisco Franco, and the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia.

In the US, the civil rights and anti-war demonstrations were reaching a crescendo. Anti-war candidate Gene McCarthy challenged the incumbent President and when Robert Kennedy entered the presidential race, Lyndon Johnson chose not to run for another term. Kennedy seemed to galvanize working people across racial and ethnic lines in a way that hasn't occurred since. The assassinations of MLK and RFK, and the shameful conduct of the Democratic Party during their convention left many people disillusioned. The mainstream Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey actually allowed Nixon to emerge as the anti-war candidate and win the Presidency.

The 1968 Olympics did not escape the protest or turmoil. The racist regimes of South Africa and Rhodesia, faced with a threatened boycott led by African nations, were disinvited from the games. Then less than two weeks before the opening ceremonies, protests by Mexican students were violently put down at the "Tlatelolco massacre". Hundreds of students and workers were murdered by the Mexican authorities who hoped to eliminate any possibility of disruptions during the games. The massacre was covered up by the Mexican government, the US State Department (“The disturbances in Mexico City affected only a small part of the population and order is now restored.”) and the compliant media; and they along with the IOC hoped that the games would continue without further controversy.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos had other plans.

Today not many people recognize the name of Dr. Harry Edwards. He is a professor emeritus of sociology at UC,Berkeley. He is most famous for promoting the inclusion of African-Americans in the management of college and professional athletics. He has been an advisor to professional leagues and teams and his views have become more mainstream over the years, but in the 1960s his ideas challenged the existing power structure.

In 1967 Edwards organized the Olympic Project for Human Rights. The group included many of the important black Olympic athletes such as Lee Evans, Ralph Boston, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wyomia Tyus, Tommie Smith, and John Carlos. They had five demands including the removal of racist Avery Brundage as IOC president, disinviting South Africa and Rhodesia (this had already been done but the racist Brundage was campaigning to have them reinstated), restoration of Muhammed Ali's boxing title, hiring of more African-American coaches, and the end of the "whites only" policy at the New York Athletic Club. The OPHR threatened a boycott of the summer Olympics unless the demands were met. The reaction to the threatened boycott was condemnation and threats from the press, the public, and the sports establishment. Their was some criticism within the African-American community including comments from 1936 Olympic hero, Jesse Owens. However support came from others, including Martin Luther King and a man who had been highly critical of Ali, Jackie Robinson.

Except for the already accomplished disinviting of South Africa and Rhodesia, none of the other demands were met. At a June meeting of black athletes, all of whom had spent years preparing for the games, there was not unanimous in support of the boycott. So it was decided that to preserve unity, rather than a boycott, it would be left to each athlete to determine if and how they would protest. In the end, only Abdul-Jabbar refused to participate.

On day one of the Olympics, Americans Jim Hines and Charles Greene went one-two in the 100 meter dash. There was no noticeable protest at the medal ceremony, though it was reported that they did not shake hands with Avery Brundage, who presented the medals. (Brundage did not present another medal during the games.)

On the second day, Smith and Carlos finished one and three in the 200. What they did on the medal stand would make history and forever impact their lives. In addition to wearing their OPHR buttons, Smith and Carlos each donned a black glove to show solidarity with oppressed people around the world, removed their shoes to symbolize the poverty of black America, and put on a necklace to represent lynching in the US. Australian Peter Norman, who was the silver medalist, also wore an OPHR button to show support for the American sprinters. As the Star-Spangled Banner began, Smith and Carlos bowed their heads and raised their fists in a gesture that was captured in the memorable photograph below. From left to right are Norman, Smith and Carlos.

 photo Carlos-Smith.jpg

The reaction was swift and harsh. Smith and Carlos were suspended from the team, expelled from the Olympic Village and sent home. Said Brundage, "They violated one of the basic principles of the Olympic games: that politics play no part whatsoever in them.”. This was the same Brundage who said nothing when Hitler turned the '36 Olympics into a propaganda extravaganza for the Nazis, including the German athletes giving the Nazi salute.

Back in the US, the two athletes met with nearly universal condemnation. The media reaction was savage. A feature article in Time magazine, playing off the Olympic slogan "Faster, Higher, Stronger", pictured the Olympic logo with the words, "Angrier, Nastier, Uglier". The most vitiolic attack was probably from Brent Musberger, who labeled them as "a  pair of dark-skinned storm troopers". (Incidentally, Musberger has never apologized for his slanderous attack.)

Smith and Carlos received loads of hate mail and many death threats. Even members of their families were threatened. They were ostracized and in the years following the protest, they had trouble finding work. Smith was immediately fired from his job at North American Pontiac. He briefly played in the NFL but was largely shunned. Carlos completed his senior year at college, also had a brief NFL career and despite his college degree worked a variety of menial jobs in the ’70s. The threats, ostracization and financial problems continued, creating a strain on his marriage, and Carlos blames the stress for his wife's suicide in 1977.

Eventually both Tommie Smith and John Carlos were acknowledged for their courage and given the respect they deserved. They received numerous awards including the 2008 Arthur Ashe Award for Courage  In 2004, San Jose State University erected a statue depicting the iconic moment in Mexico City. Smith doesn't like to use the word "vindicated". "To be vindicated means that I did something wrong," he says. "I didn't do anything wrong." Acknowledgement is likely a better word.

After the rocky times in the 1970s, both men went on to successful careers, Smith as a college instructor and coach, and Carlos as a high school counselor and coach. Though their actions at the '68 Olympics certainly cost them both emotionally and financially, neither man regrets his actions. Says Smith: "I just carried out a responsibility. We felt a need to represent a lot of people who did more than we did but had no platform, people who suffered long before I got to the victory stand." And from John Carlos: "You cannot regret what you knew, to the very core of your person, was right." Both men continue to speak in support of human rights. In October 2011, Carlos spoke at the General Assembly of Occupy Wall Street in Zucotti Park.

Peter Norman also faced retribution for his show of solidarity. He was reprimanded by the Australian Olympic Committee, was left off the 1972 Olympic Team despite qualifying, and was not even included in the ceremonies surrounding the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. (He was eventually invited as a guest of the American delegation.) At Norman's funeral in 2006, Smith and Carlos were pall bearers and eulogized him. In an interview John Carlos said, "He was my brother."

The 1968 Olympics were held in the fall. I was a college student at the time. I had been involved in the civil rights movement since high school and was becoming more radicalized as I entered my 20s. Of course the clenched fist protest by Smith and Carlos created quite a stir on campus and in particular in one of my classes, "The Coaching of Track and Field". With most of the students and the instructor opposing the actions of Smith and Carlos, I found myself holding the minority opinion, an opinion I took the opportunity to express as often as possible. In an essay for the class, I wrote:

These two black athletes acted not as politicians but as humanitarians. They had shown their loyalty to the United States by competing under our flag and by bringing honor to their country through victory. They then showed their loyalty to their oppressed brothers throughout the world by a simple but very courageous action

The reaction was inevitable. Two "uppity negroes" had dared to stand up to the white man's charade. The worldwide white establishment acted swiftly to to suppress this threat to their absolute authority. The United States apologized publicly, chastised their wayward "negroes" and sent them home.

Though I appreciated the concept of putting aside nationalism during the Olympics, the reality was that during the Cold War, the Olympics were used by both sides for propaganda purposes. I wrote that it therefore seemed hypocritical to ignore human rights abuses and to "pretend that we haven't exploited our fellow man to the fullest". I also condemned Avery Brundage as a jingoistic racist and wrote that he should retire.

Though my instructor disagreed with the actions of Smith and Carlos (he did agree with my assessment of Brundage), he nonetheless read my essay to the class as an example of a well thought out dissent.

As I read that essay 45 later, it seems that the words still apply. The Olympics have become even more of a propaganda and marketing tool, and yet the IOC still insists that symbolic protest is inappropriate.

Will there be any Olympians who will protest the Russian human rights abuses in defiance of the  IOC and the Russian authorities? Will there be any gay athlete who will have the courage of Tommie Smith and John Carlos? More importantly, will there be any straight athlete who will have the courage of Peter Norman and stand in solidarity with the victims of oppression and persecution?

And if there is a protest, what will be the reaction from the IOC, the Olympic delegations, the press and the public. Forty-five years ago Tommie Smith and John Carlos taught the world about courage and priorities. It remains to be seen whether we have learned the lessons of their actions.

Nota Bene: Dave in Northridge posted a diary, The Sochi Olympics, Homophobia, and Protest in Context from Dave Zirin. The diary discusses various protests at the Olympic Games and includes the '68 protests as part of the tradition.

Originally posted to Don't Panic on Wed Feb 05, 2014 at 02:04 PM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Thanks for reminding us, on the eve of (13+ / 0-)

    the Winter Olympics, of one of the most iconic and memorable moments of 1968. I was a high school junior  that October, and it certainly was a tumultuous time.

    "If you love your Uncle Sam bring them home, bring them home." - Pete Seeger.

    by brae70 on Wed Feb 05, 2014 at 02:19:08 PM PST

  •  Personal heroes of mine. And martyrs... (14+ / 0-)

    to the cause.  It was a source of inspiration to this '68 teenager to resist and revolt against this crap.

    As a reminder of how even the powerful and white can suffer when they buck the violent and corrupt system under which we live, here's a link to a story about a Congressman who made the "mistake" of making a serious attempt to reign in the NSA:

    http://pando.com/...

  •  Re: the Olympics as propaganda-- (5+ / 0-)
    the Olympics were used by both sides for propaganda purposes
    We can thank 'Murca's great Father God that there are no longer two sides.  There's only one that gets its voice heard on the TV: the rich.

    And the Olympics continue as part of the omnipresent effort to propagandize the victims that they are persecuting the helpless rich by daring to think that we poor fuckers are getting screwed.

  •  Thanks for telling the story (7+ / 0-)

    behind and beyond that iconic photo.

    "The NSA’s capability at any time could be turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor everything. [...] There would be no place to hide."--Frank Church

    by Joan McCarter on Wed Feb 05, 2014 at 03:21:03 PM PST

    •  It's quite interesting (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      HiKa, old wobbly, wasatch, gffish

      There is so much more than I could put into an already too long diary: the genesis of the OPHR movement; differing accounts on the decision to protest on the medal stand; the relationship between Smith and Carlos. Then there was the whole Peter Norman story and the issues of the mistreatment of the native populations of Australia.

      It is fascinating history and yet so relevant today.

      A proud member of the Professional Left since 1967.

      by slatsg on Wed Feb 05, 2014 at 04:22:58 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Thanks for the post (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    sturunner, slatsg, wasatch

    Never really part of the movement in those days (I have GOP roots),  I nevertheless have always been haunted and inspired by that iconic image of protest.  I didn't know why it moved me so much back then, but I sure do now.

    •  You're welcome (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      HiKa, sturunner, wasatch

      As I wrote in a comment above, it is very interesting history.

      I am hoping that some Olympian will take the metaphorical torch from Smith, Carlos and Norman, and make a statement about the persecution of gay people taking place in Russia today.

      A proud member of the Professional Left since 1967.

      by slatsg on Wed Feb 05, 2014 at 04:28:11 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  What a year. As a white kid in a small rural (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    slatsg, asindc, bobdevo, wasatch, gffish

    Texas town, I was pro-Smith and Carlos, and after a period of evolution supported Muhammed Ali's resistance to the draft, and Kareem was one of my basketball heroes.
    Strong memories.

    You can't make this stuff up.

    by David54 on Wed Feb 05, 2014 at 03:30:54 PM PST

  •  Smith and Carlos Were Right - (11+ / 0-)

    And they will be remembered for their honesty.

  •  Avery Brundage lost to Jim Thorpe (12+ / 0-)

    Brundage competed in the decathlon in the 1912 Olympics, which Thorpe won, along with the now-discontinued pentathlon event.  That's probably why the IOC didn't restore Thorpe's medals until after Brundage died.  He was never going to forgive a nonwhite man for showing him up.

    •  I could see that (7+ / 0-)

      Read about the 1936 Olympics and how Brundage worked against the proposed boycott. He was an admirer of Hitler, a known anti-Semite, and a racist. When two Jewish athletes, Sam Stoller and Marty Glickman, were removed from the sprint relay during the Berlin Olympics, many - including Glickman - believed that Brundage was behind it.

      A proud member of the Professional Left since 1967.

      by slatsg on Wed Feb 05, 2014 at 05:01:41 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Documentary film on the salute (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    slatsg, HiKa, wasatch

    There's a pretty good documentary on the protests and salute by Peter Norman's nephew,  with interviews of many of the athletes involved.
    "Salute"

    The black power salute at the 1968 Mexico Olympics was an iconic moment in the US civil rights movement. What part did the white Australian who ran second play and what price did these athletes pay for standing up for their beliefs?
    IMDB entry on "Salute"
    It's available on Netflix streaming and Amazon streaming.
  •  Smith was in Plainfield VT last year to get... (7+ / 0-)

    "So, am I right or what?"

    by itzik shpitzik on Wed Feb 05, 2014 at 05:35:23 PM PST

  •  Right on and power to the people. (4+ / 0-)

    Two righteous dudes.

    Fiat justitia ruat caelum "Let justice be done though the heavens fall."

    by bobdevo on Wed Feb 05, 2014 at 05:51:46 PM PST

  •  Side note: Peter Norman still holds the Australian (5+ / 0-)

    200m sprint record of 20.06s.
    In 2008, his nepwhew, Matt, an Aussie TV actor, completed his doco on the story of the protest: Salute:The Peter Norman Story.

    The Olympic movement tries to keep politics out of sport. Of course, this is futile. Athletic contests are human endeavours, and all human endeavours have political aspects.

    To hold to the Olympic "ideal" of excluding politics is to be indifferent to the suffering of other humans - which is itself a political act. And it's a type of politics that puts the individual athlete's struggle to glory ahead of the suffering of any multitude.

    •  Thanks for the comment (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      gffish, HiKa, JayBat

      Norman's time would have won the gold medal at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Ironically, he was the only past Australian medalist not invited to participate in the opening ceremonies.

      A proud member of the Professional Left since 1967.

      by slatsg on Wed Feb 05, 2014 at 07:55:24 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Actually that is quite incorrect ! (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        slatsg, HiKa

        There's actually more than a little hagiography re the Peter Norman situation which was in itself rather sad.

        Those at the top of the Australian Olympic organisation at the time, and in most of the major Olympic sports, WERE distinctly conservative and often aligned to the Melbourne/Sydney "establishment and many were still around into the early 80's.

        Peter Norman WAS in many ways "sent to Coventry by Aust sporting officialdom and the media; remember much of the Australian print media is owned by Newscorp (Murdoch). The fact remains that he NEVER again went anywhere near his Mexico (altitude assisted) time and it could well be argued his Mexico performance was a magnificent anomaly in his career.

        The statement "he was the only past Australian medalist not invited to participate in the opening ceremonies." requires more than a little clarification and indeed correction. The only roles for past medalists in the ceremonial aspects of ANY Olympic opening are (A) being one of the final members of the torch relay once it enters the stadium OR (B) be one of the 8 selected as carriers of the Olympic flag into the stadium who carry it to the flagpole to be raised.

        Peter Norman may well have been an excellent symbolic choice for one of these but in a country that is perennially one of the biggest teams and major medal winners; he was up against people who were multi medal winners over consecutive games for both slots. They chose women for the final torch relay leg and all the flag bearers had multiple medals as their CV.

        Former athletes were NOT given special allocations for tickets for Sydney, nor is that general practice for any of the others that I've been involved with. IF the athlete still has involvement/links with their old sporting body, then they may be able to swing something. Cudos to the US teams for choosing to recognise him and provide some tickets ...... a lot of people who entered the ballot for tickets missed out, especially for the "big ticket" sports and sessions.

        Peter Norman WAS part of the torch relay, as were ALL surviving former Olympians except 1-2 who were in jail. He was NOT shut out; arguably he was given the same level of recognition as all other surviving former athletes.

        Yes, he could definitely have been chosen as one of the few ceremonial spots available and there certainly would NOT have been any real public criticism if he had. The fact is that it isn't really a sustainable argument that he missed out for political reasons. There were very strong reasons for the choice of all of those who had ceremonial roles, both sporting and in most cases personal stories.

        •  Thanks for the correction re: the Sydney Olympics (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          HiKa

          His actions at the '68 Olympics and later as a union activist speak for themselves. They stand on their own and certainly need no embellishment.

          I appreciate your incites regarding the Melbourne/Sydney organization and the role of Murdoch's Newscorp.

          There was at the time, and there still is, disagreement as to the impact of altitude on the times, especially in the sprints. Whether or not his time at Mexico City was an anomaly is of course irrelevant to his actions in support of Smith and Carlos, and to whether or not he should have been a part of the 1972 Australian Olympic team.

          Thanks again for the input.

          A proud member of the Professional Left since 1967.

          by slatsg on Wed Feb 05, 2014 at 09:58:27 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  Utterly agree Norman deserves recognition (2+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            HiKa, slatsg

            both in his own country and internationally for his supportive role in the Carlos/Smith protest. He copped an  unfair snubbing from sporting administrators and certain media afterwards, although to their credit his team management at the Games took a much relaxed view. It was very much to the credit of the 2000 US team to seek him out and Smith and Carlos for giving him due acknowledgement.

            This did get media airing in Australia after his death. Apart from the obligatory deadbeats, the overall view was positive towards what he did and that he copped a raw deal in public at the time.

            Two of your assertions in your second post are, however,  open to question. Peter Norman was Aus 200m champion from 1962 to 1970 but never afterwards. He was NOT Aus 200m champion in 72 and in fact they selected NO Aus male athletes in that event for Munich and indeed NO male sprinters. He was also playing Australian rules football during the Aust winter/athletics off season which also had injury ramifications. The merits of his non selection can most certainly be debated but I'm not sure, as a lawyer, that I'd be certain of success claiming a case of discrimination.

            The second regards him being a union official. FYI, Australia at the time was a very highly unionised workforce and whilst obviously not popular with the conservatives/big business lobby; being a union official held none of the public opprobrium that it might hold in the US.

            One curious question does remain. Just HOW would a Smith/Carlos type action (pointed towards a US domestic issue as against an intl one like LGBT in Russia/Sochi) be received both by the US public AND media ?? I think the sporting officials may, in many ways, have progressed but has the mass public and the media ?? CAN we categorically answer in the affirmative ??

            •  I would like to believe that we have progressed .. (0+ / 0-)

              However I believe that if their were an action similar to the Smith/Carlos clenched fist salute, there would be a similar response from the media and the public.

              Remember that in 1968, despite the seeming empowerment of the students and workers, there was a pushback by the authorities, often violent. Often it depended on their perception of the threat and the attitude of the protesters.

              Smith and Carlos did not "know their place" and in essence were "uppity negroes". Had they only wore the buttons or simply gone shoeless, there would haven't have been the same reaction. But they raised their fists during the national anthem, a defiant and confrontational gesture.

              I don't know if you follow American football or not, but a couple of weeks ago a young African-American football player talked some smack after a game on national television. The over-reaction was unbelievable and it made the headlines for several days. One would have thought that he assaulted someone. But again, the issue was that he "didn't know his place". After the Super Bowl, he said some nice things about Peyton Manning and now the conventional wisdom is that he "learned his lesson".

              So getting back to your question, I don't think it matters if the protest is against US policy or a Russian policy. It would depend the perception of the threat toward authority and the attitude of the protester.

              Here is an example. Supposed an American athlete won a gold medal and wore a shirt with a large pink triangle to protest the human rights abuses of the Russians. It's a fairly non-confrontational act and would probably be accepted and even commended by many in the media. However, let's suppose that the athlete made a Sinead O'Connor gesture and as the National Anthem was concluding, took out a picture of Putin and tore it to shreds. Or suppose that the medalist came in second to a Russian, and during the Russian anthem turned his/her back and raised a fist or made some very defiant gesture. In those last two cases, I believe that the authorities and media would react very negatively and that the protester would suffer the consequences, the severity depending how confrontational they were and how far outside "acceptable" protest the action was.

              Thanks again for the input.

              A proud member of the Professional Left since 1967.

              by slatsg on Thu Feb 06, 2014 at 01:22:08 PM PST

              [ Parent ]

  •  I went to the same elementary and high schools (9+ / 0-)

    as Tommie C. Smith, where he still holds various track and field records.  I can't remember my age, but at some point in the early 70's, he came by Akers Elementary to visit with the kids.  I remember him as impossibly tall, very handsome, with an unmistakable aura of kindness about him.  He had a certain gravity that I still recall, and there was nothing patronizing in his attitude.

    I'm uncertain if any of us (other than the coaches who introduced him to our gym classes) knew about the controversy regarding his gold medal, but even if anyone did, we gave him a hero's welcome, one that I'm even more proud of having heard the story of his mistreatment for a brave and necessary act as I aged.

  •  The Tlateloco massacre deserves more attention (9+ / 0-)

    Just as today, the host country was a brutal one party dictatorship. Just ten days before the opening of the 1968 Olympics, Mexican police opened fire on peaceful protesters. We still to this day do not know the death toll.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/...

    Thanks for mentioning this!

  •  A verey good retrospective (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    wasatch, slatsg, Santa Susanna Kid

    Thank you!

    "I come close to despair because so many of the pieces of the country are broken, and when you see that, you have two choices: You can give up, or you can do something about it." Elizabeth Warren

    by Ed in Montana on Wed Feb 05, 2014 at 07:11:36 PM PST

  •  Thanks for writing (4+ / 0-)

    about those important days, and including the killings of students in Mexico, and mentioning Harry Edwards' part in the protest.

    “The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.” ― Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

    by 6412093 on Wed Feb 05, 2014 at 09:56:14 PM PST

    •  Harry Edwards does not get the recognition (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      6412093, JayBat

      he deserves. For decades He has been speaking and writing about issues such as African-Americans in management and about the importance of achieving a balance between academics and athletics.

      A proud member of the Professional Left since 1967.

      by slatsg on Wed Feb 05, 2014 at 10:43:37 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Yep, I took a class from him at Cal (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        slatsg, JayBat

        I was a sports reporter at the time and he suggested some ways to interview athletes that my editors weren't too interested in.

        “The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.” ― Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

        by 6412093 on Wed Feb 05, 2014 at 11:40:30 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  I remember seeing this photo (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    slatsg

    in the newspaper. At 13 years old, I knew what they meant by it. It was beautiful, it was righteous, and it represented the fight and the injustice. This image brings me pride, but, also tears; because times just haven't been changin' since then. I still have that paper...SSK

    "Hey Clinton, I'm bushed" - Keith Richards

    by Santa Susanna Kid on Thu Feb 06, 2014 at 12:24:14 PM PST

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