1968 Olympics Black Power salute
The black power salute at the 1968 Olympics was a protest made by the African American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos; the athletes made the raised fist gesture at the Olympic Stadium in Mexico City. The Australian competitor, Peter Norman, wore an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge in solidarity. The event was one of the most overtly political statements in the history of the modern Olympic Games. Tommie Smith stated in his autobiography, Silent Gesture, that the gesture was not a “black power” salute, but in fact a “human rights salute”.
On the morning of 16 October 1968, U.S. athlete Tommie Smith won the 200 meter race in a world-record time of 19.83 seconds, with Australia’s Peter Norman second with a time of 20.06 seconds, and the U.S.’s John Carlos in third place with a time of 20.10 seconds. After the race was completed, the three went to collect their medals at the podium. The two U.S. athletes received their medals shoeless, but wearing black socks, to represent black poverty. Smith wore a black scarf around his neck to represent black pride, Carlos had his tracksuit top unzipped to show solidarity with all blue collar workers in the U.S. and wore a necklace of beads which he described “were for those individuals that were lynched, or killed and that no-one said a prayer for, that were hung and tarred. It was for those thrown off the side of the boats in the middle passage.” All three athletes wore Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) badges after Norman, a critic of Australia’s White Australia Policy, expressed empathy with their ideals. Sociologist Harry Edwards, the founder of the OPHR, had urged black athletes to boycott the games; reportedly, the actions of Smith and Carlos on 16 October 1968 were inspired by Edwards’ arguments.
Both U.S. athletes intended on bringing black gloves to the event, but Carlos forgot his, leaving them in the Olympic Village. It was the Australian, Peter Norman, who suggested Carlos wear Smith’s left-handed glove, this being the reason behind him raising his left hand, as opposed to his right, differing from the traditional Black Power salute. When “The Star-Spangled Banner” played, Smith and Carlos delivered the salute with heads bowed, a gesture which became front page news around the world. As they left the podium they were booed by the crowd. Smith later said “If I win, I am American, not a black American. But if I did something bad, then they would say I am a Negro. We are black and we are proud of being black. Black America will understand what we did tonight.”
International Olympic Committee response
International Olympic Committee (IOC) president, Avery Brundage, deemed it to be a domestic political statement, unfit for the apolitical, international forum the Olympic Games were supposed to be. In an immediate response to their actions, he ordered Smith and Carlos suspended from the U.S. team and banned from the Olympic Village. When the US Olympic Committee refused, Brundage threatened to ban the entire US track team. This threat led to the two athletes being expelled from the Games.
A spokesman for the IOC said it was “a deliberate and violent breach of the fundamental principles of the Olympic spirit.” Brundage, who was president of the United States Olympic Committee in 1936, had made no objections against Nazi salutes during the Berlin Olympics. He argued that the Nazi salute, being a national salute at the time, was acceptable in a competition of nations, while the athletes’ salute was not of a nation and therefore unacceptable. However, this rationalization relied upon public ignorance that it was contradicted by the IOC Charter itself, which has always stipulated that, “the Olympic Games are competitions between athletes in individual or team events and not between countries.”
Brundage had been one of the United States’ most prominent Nazi sympathisers even after the outbreak of the Second World War, and his removal as president of the IOC had been one of the three stated objectives of the Olympic Project for Human Rights
Today, the official IOC website states that “Over and above winning medals, the black American athletes made names for themselves by an act of racial protest.”
Smith and Carlos were largely ostracized by the U.S. sporting establishment in the following years and, in addition, were subject to criticism of their actions. Time magazine showed the five-ring Olympic logo with the words, “Angrier, Nastier, Uglier”, instead of “Faster, Higher, Stronger”. Back home, they were subject to abuse and they and their families received death threats.
Smith continued in athletics, going on to play in the NFL with the Cincinnati Bengals, before becoming an assistant professor of Physical Education at Oberlin College. In 1995, he went on to help coach the U.S. team at the World Indoor Championships at Barcelona. In 1999 he was awarded the California Black Sportsman of the Millennium Award. He is now a public speaker.
Carlos’ career followed a similar path to Smith’s. He initially continued in athletics, equalling the 100 yard dash world record the following year. Later, he played in the NFL with thePhiladelphia Eagles, before a knee injury prematurely ended his career. He fell upon hard times in the late 1970s and, in 1977, his ex-wife committed suicide, leading him to a period of depression. In 1982, Carlos was employed by the Organizing Committee for the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles to promote the games and act as liaison with the city’s black community. In 1985, he became a track and field coach at Palm Springs High School, a post he still holds.
Norman, who was sympathetic to his competitors’ protest, was reprimanded by his country’s Olympic authorities and ostracized by the Australian media. He was not picked for the1972 Summer Olympics, despite finishing third in his trials. Smith and Carlos were pallbearers at his funeral.
In 2005, San Jose State University honored former students Smith and Carlos with a 22-foot high statue of their protest. A student, Erik Grotz, initiated the project: “One of my professors was talking about unsung heroes and he mentioned Tommie Smith and John Carlos. He said these men had done a courageous thing to advance civil rights, and, yet, they had never been honored by their own school.” In January 2007, History San Jose opened a new exhibit called Speed City: From Civil Rights to Black Power, covering the San Jose State athletic program “from which many student athletes became globally recognized figures as the Civil Rights and Black Power movements reshaped American society.”
On 3 March 2008, in the Detroit Free Press editorial section, an editorial by Orin Starn entitled “Bottom line turns to hollow gold for today’s Olympians” lamented the lack of social engagement of modern sports athletes, in contrast to Smith and Carlos.
Internationally, in a 2011 speech to the University of Guelph, Akaash Maharaj, a member of the Canadian Olympic Committee and head of Canada’s Olympic Equestrian team, said, “In that moment, Tommie Smith, Peter Norman, and John Carlos became the living embodiments of Olympic idealism. Ever since, they have been inspirations to generations of athletes like myself, who can only aspire to their example of putting principle before personal interest. It was their misfortune to be far greater human beings than the leaders of the IOC of the day.”
In Australia, an historic airbrush mural of the trio on podium was painted in the inner-city suburb of Newtown in Sydney. In 2010 the highly visible work was under threat of demolition to make way for a rail tunnel. Painted on a house wall with permission of the owner, it faces a main commuter rail line. Local government is fighting to retain the monochrome tribute, captioned “THREE PROUD PEOPLE MEXICO 68”, including attempts to have it heritage-listed, though this move would not guarantee its protection.
The Sydney Film Festival in mid-2008 featured a documentary about the protest entitled Salute. The film was written, directed and produced by Matt Norman, an Australian actor and film-maker, and Peter Norman’s nephew.
On 9 July 2008, BBC Four broadcast a documentary, Black Power Salute, by Geoff Small, about the protest and its aftermath. In an article, Small noted that the athletes of the British team attending the 2008 Olympics in Beijing had been asked to sign gagging clauses which would have restricted their right to make political statements, but that they had refused.
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- ^ Lucas, Dean (11 February 2007). “Black Power”. Famous Pictures: The Magazine. Retrieved 9 November 2008.
- ^ Peter Norman
- ^ Spander, Art (24 February 2006). “A Moment In Time: Remembering an Olympic Protest”. CSTV. Archived from the original on 21 October 2008. Retrieved 9 November 2008.
- ^ “The other man on the podium”. BBC. 17 October 2008. Archived from the original on 26 October 2008. Retrieved 9 November 2008.
- ^ “John Carlos” (PDF). Freedom Weekend. Archived from the original on 18 December 2008. Retrieved 9 November 2008.
- ^ “The Olympic Story”, editor James E. Churchill, Jr., published 1983 by Grolier Enterprises Inc.
- ^ Olympic Charter, Section 6 Item 1, International Olympic Committee, 1952 through 2007
- ^ Documentary “Hitler’s Pawn: The Margeret Lambert Story”, produced by HBO and Black Canyon Productions
- ^ Silent Gesture – Autobiography of Tommie Smith (excerpt via Google Books) – Smith, Tommie & Steele, David, Temple University Press, 2007, ISBN 159213639
- ^ Mexico 1968 (official International Olympic Committee website. Retrieved 9 September 2010.
- ^ “Tommie Smith 1968 Olympic Gold Medalist”. Tommie Smith. Archived from the original on 19 October 2008. Retrieved 9 November 2008.
- ^ Neil Amdur (10 Oct 2011). “Olympic Protester Maintains Passion”. New York Times. Retrieved 11 October 2011.
- ^ Wise, Mike (5 October 2006). “Clenched fists, helping hand”. The Washington Post. Retrieved 9 November 2008.
- ^ Flanagan, Martin (6 October 2006). “Olympic protest heroes praise Norman’s courage”. The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 9 November 2008.
- ^ Slot, Owen (19 October 2005). “America finally honours rebels as clenched fist becomes salute”. The Sunday Times (London). Retrieved 9 November 2008.
- ^ “Speed City: From Civil Rights to Black Power”. History San José. 28 July 2005. Retrieved 9 November 2008.
- ^ “Salute at ESPYs – Smith and Carlos to receive Arthur Ashe Courage Award”.http://espn.go.com/ espn.com. 29 May 2008. Archived from the original on 5 April 2008. Retrieved 17 January 2009.
- ^ Speech to the Ontario Equine Center at the University of Guelph, Akaash Maharaj, 27 May 2011
- ^ a b c “Last stand for Newtown’s ‘three proud people'”, Josephine Tovey, 27 July 2010, Sydney Morning Herald Newtown’s ‘Three Proud People’ Mural To Be Demolished? | Olympics
- ^ “2008 Program Revealed!”. 8 May 2008. Archived from the original on 25 January 2009. Retrieved 17 January 2009.
- ^ Small, Geoff (9 July 2008). “Remembering the Black Power protest”. The Guardian(UK). Retrieved 9 November 2008.
- “The Politics of Hypocrisy” – includes authorized excerpt from the Harvard Crimson of Wednesday 6 November 1968.
- “Matt Norman, Director/Producer ‘Salute'” (podcast: nephew of Peter Norman discusses new documentary about Peter’s role in the Black Power Salute)
- “El Black Power de Mexico: 40 años después” (Diario La Nación of Buenos Aires, 10/11/08)