Black fists. Black men. Black pride. That’s how we will always remember bronze medalist John Carlos and gold medalist Tommie Smith–two Olympic sprinters representing the United States at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. The two Black men had something to say about America. On October 16, 1968, they stood atop the medal podium as the Star-Spangled Banner played and quietly bowed their heads, averted their eyes away from the US flag, and each proudly put a black-gloved fist in the air. In a press conference immediately after their protest, Carlos stated, “We want to make it clear that white people seem to think Black people are animals doing a job.” He continued, “We want you to tell Americans and all the world that if they do not care what black people do, they should not go to see black people perform.”
The two men had more to say as the days went by. The US Olympic Committee kicked them out of Mexico City, reporters shoved microphones in their faces, and some teammates showed them support while others shamed them. Fifty years later, the two icons still use their platforms to speak about the meaning of their protest on the podium. Their silent gesture of Black solidarity and Black pride on the podium presented a unified image of Black protest, but the action divided Black America.
Caught up in a larger debate about the usefulness of Black Power politics, at root of the Black community stood two competing thoughts about sports and the rights and responsibilities of Black athletes. On one side, stood a small, but powerful, minority of pundits grounded in the belief that sports had been good to Black people in general and the Black athlete in particular. They argued that where other avenues had been closed to Black men, athletics gave young men an opportunity to make it in society. They further noted that the integration of Black athletes helped usher in civil rights, as white America supposedly became familiar and comfortable with integration as they rooted for their favorite teams that Black athletes increasingly filled. Legendary runner Jesse Owens, who had spent nearly a year before the Olympics Games advising Black athletes against a proposed boycott, argued “the Olympic incidents damaged the image of the Negro athlete in America.” Owens worried that “to the kid who starts off poor or underfoot, sports represent the American dream. If a boy can’t grow up and make it there, he can’t make it anywhere.” Smith and Carlos shook that foundation.
Believing that sports had been good to Black folks, Black critics worried about the perception the protest created, and some of the leading activists and Black sportswriters called into question Smith’s and Carlos’s protest. Civil rights leader Roy Wilkins called their black socks “juvenile” and noted “their raised fists had an unfortunate connotation.”1 An editorial from the Chicago Defender opined that the protest was “inappropriate” and asked, “Was this a symbolic plea for a separate black Olympiad in which no white participation would be permitted?”2 Jim Hall of the Louisiana Weekly added, “Carlos and Smith had the right to protest the inequalities the black man suffers in the world, but what was accomplished by the black-gloved fist act in Mexico by the twosome?”3 Brad Pye Jr. of the Los Angeles Sentinel suggested, “The Olympic games is not a platform for problems. The Olympic games is a place where all nations to [sic] compete in athletic and cultural competition and leave their problems—social, political, economical, or otherwise at home or sweep them under the rug or call a truce.”4 Sam Lacy, legendary sports columnist for the Baltimore Afro American, compared their gesture to a Nazi salute and said he felt embarrassed by their actions. Lacy lamented “their entire behavior was ill-advised,” and contended “it would have been in much better taste to leave the recriminations within the borders of the U.S.”5
For men who had previously used their platforms in the press to call for boycotts and pickets to further integration, their critiques might have reeked of hypocrisy, but their thoughts stood in line with many Black critics in the larger context of Black Power protests. Integrationist Black leaders worried that calls for Black Power slow integration efforts, and reinforce segregation. They argued that opponents of civil rights would use Black Power to stifle the progress of the movement. Editorial sections in the Black press were filled with declarations either supporting or opposing Black Power. Few left room for nuance. And although Smith and Carlos claimed that their gesture was not a Black power salute—they still do fifty years later—everyone who saw it, framed it as such.
Carlos’s and Smith’s supporters represented a growing faction in the Black community that believed sports owed the Black Athlete. The Black athlete had every right, and even a responsibility, to use sports as a vehicle for change, even if that meant invoking Black Power. Claude E. Harrison of the Philadelphia Tribune told his readers he supported Smith and Carlos because they were “motivated by years of second-hand citizenship and the fear that first-class status is a mere dream.” From Detroit, the Michigan Chronicle’s Frank H. Saunders said “The black athlete, and the black man in general, is demanding all the rights guaranteed under the Constitution of the United States and one of those rights is freedom of expression.”6 Activist Reverend Albert Cleage of Detroit wrote a letter to the two stars celebrating them as Black role models, telling the two they were, “brave black men full of racial pride, self-awareness, dignity and confidence.” “It does not bother us one bit that white folks did not like your gesture,” Cleage stated, “because a protest is meaningless if it can be ignored by people who are guilty of the things which you protest.”7
Black women, including many athletes, openly supported the boycott. Leading up to the Olympics, the men did not include Black women in the discussion about the boycott. To the men in charge, star athletes like long jumper Willye White, sprinter Wyomia Tyus, and 800-meter runner Madeline Manning were expected to fall in line. In the wake of the protest, many Black women voiced their support, but on their own terms. Black women assertively tied the protest to larger issues facing the Black community. Karen M. Kelly of Chicago argued the two men were “making use of the platform which their skill as athletes had won them.” In her view, she added, “they chose to demonstrate from that public perch that they absolutely protest the present situation in this country, the oppression of black people.” For social worker Loretta Kimbrough of St. Louis, the two athletes exuded the pride Black people needed in their everyday lives. She asked reporter Jimmy Hill of the St. Louis Sentinel, “What’s wrong with a black power gesture?” and also questioned, “What’s wrong with black pride in one’s own race?” She answered her own query and demanded, “We need more of it.”8
These words are still powerful fifty years later as quarterback Colin Kaepernick finds himself unemployed by the NFL because he protested police brutality during the national anthem. Kim Carlos, the wife of John Carlos, who had spent the first week of the Olympics defiantly sitting during the national anthem, told a reporter, “We have nothing to stand for when they salute it as the land of bravery and freedom. I was born and raised in Harlem. I’ve seen first-hand the kind of bravery they show with their police night sticks. I’ve lived for years in the kind of ‘free life’ they talk about.”9 While her husband raised his fist, she pulled no punches. She knew that what her husband did with Tommie Smith was more than just a moment. She understood their silent gesture constituted a cry for freedom and a demonstration of Black Pride. For fifty years, the image of Black men with their black fists in the air has continued to grip an America that still grapples with celebrating Black athletes while treating Black people as second-class citizens.
- Roy Wilkins, “Overkill at the Olympics,” Denver Post, November 1, 1968. ↩
- “Olympic Black Power,” Chicago Defender, October 21, 1968. ↩
- “Time Out,” Louisiana Weekly, November 2, 1968. ↩
- Quoted in, “Time Out,” Louisiana Weekly, November 2, 1968. ↩
- “Lacy Hits Protests at Olympics,” Baltimore Afro American, October 19, 1968. ↩
- “Frankly Speaking,” Michigan Chronicle, November 2, 1968. ↩
- “Athletes’ Protest Lauded by Cleage,” Michigan Chronicle, November 2, 1968. ↩
- “Olympic Black Power Praised,” Chicago Defender, November 16, 1968; “Pros and Cons on Smith and Carlos,” St. Louis Sentinel, November 9, 1968. ↩
- “Lacy Hits Protests at Olympics,” Baltimore Afro American, October 19, 1968. ↩