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Olympic Protest: 50 Years Ago, Tommie Smith and John Carlos Joined the Heritage of Black Athlete-Activists

John Carlos, Tommie Smith, and Peter Norman at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City.
John Carlos, Tommie Smith, and Peter Norman at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. Photo credit: Angelo Cozzi

It’s an iconic moment that’s been seared into sports history and Black history. Fifty years ago, track and field athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in the Black Power salute during the American national anthem at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City to protest racial inequality. That day, not only did Smith and Carlos win gold and bronze medals respectively; they also joined the ranks of Jackie Robinson and Paul Robeson in a long legacy of Black athlete-activists. Journalist Howard Bryant covers the trajectory of their sports careers in The Heritage: Black Athletes, a Divided America, and the Politics of Patriotism.

As it was for Black athletes before them, sports was a point of cultural and political collision for Smith and Carlos. On the track, they could voice their dissent, and their celebrity could amplify their message. For them, race was never inseparable from sports. As Bryant writes in one example:

The inclusion of South Africa to the Olympics activated athletes, including Lew Alcindor, the best college basketball player in the country. Tommie Smith, Lee Evans, and John Carlos were track and field stars who grew in conscience. “The word of the day was boycott and anyone who was either a black athlete or sympathetic to the cause of black athletes was well-versed in the arguments on both sides,” Carlos said. “And it was clear you couldn’t be a bystander in this struggle. Black, white or brown, we needed to know which side you were on.”

The white mainstream reaction was confounded, hostile, wounded. On July 15, 1968, Newsweek put Smith on its cover, with the headline “The Angry Black Athlete.”

Long before President Trump called kneeling NFL players “sons of bitches” and Laura Ingraham admonished Lebron James to “shut up and dribble,” Smith and Carlos bore the brunt of backlash for taking a stand against racial discrimination on the field. Being on the right side of history meant jeopardizing their careers and reputations. Bryant elaborates:

Before [O. J.] Simpson could truly become the face of sports in the 1970s, however, the establishment first had some unfinished business: it had to punish the Heritage. As the years went by, its charter members were like those one-name rock stars: Smith and Carlos, Ali and Jackie. Even if you didn’t know the whole story, you knew the deeds.

Smith and Carlos were never stripped of their Olympic medals, though that was a rumor left intentionally uncorrected by the IOC for a specific purpose: to scare off any would-be heroes thinking of further challenging the system. IOC president Avery Brundage said, according to Carlos, that he and Smith had embarrassed him and the Olympic community in Mexico City, and though both were an inspiration to athletes around the world, John Carlos always said Brundage vowed to make them pay. Their opportunities to make a living in sports disintegrated. Smith never raced again. Carlos ran in his final year of eligibility, ran well, and in need of an option, following the steps of the great sprinter turned Dallas Cowboys star receiver Robert “Bullet Bob” Hayes, turned to the NFL. It didn’t last. During a short stint with the Philadelphia Eagles, Carlos tore up his knee, and the avalanche continued. His marriage collapsed. Wrote Carlos:

By 1969 and into 1970, my life was beg, beg, borrow, and steal. If I had $100, I would leave my family and hightail it to Vegas and hit the crap tables to see if I could score us up some money. I just felt like the hustle was the only way to solve the most immediate problems: food and shelter. The hustle is what I did when I wasn’t working. Whatever jobs I had to take, I wasn’t too proud or too ashamed to do it. I had a job as a security guard at a nightclub, wearing this brownstone ranger uniform. Many people used to come in the club and say, “Hey! Aren’t you John Carlos?” They were shocked that I would be doing work like that. But I did what I had to do. I put out the word that I would take whatever job was necessary to make sure my family was able to eat.

Tommie Smith’s marriage also ended. The supportive allies weren’t so supportive after all, he found. That included some of his fellow warriors in the struggle. Smith tried the NFL. A famous fallout with Jim Brown was particularly personal. Brown, the icon everyone looked up to, lent Smith money for a tryout with the Los Angeles Rams. When the tryout fell through, Smith, just hanging on financially, was stunned to see the great, rich, and famous Jim Brown demanding his money back. Smith languished on the taxi squad of the Cincinnati Bengals. In his autobiography, he dedicated a chapter to this period, calling it “Paying the Price.”

After the silent protest, though, there was a never a chance that I would earn anything from track and field. Just as important, I would never know how fast I could have become. I was 24 years old in Mexico City, and I was running at 28 miles an hour then. I would have just turned 28 by the time of the 1972 Olympics in Munich, and everyone has seen what runners like Carl Lewis and Michael Johnson have done as they matured . . . Yet with all the components of the system lined up against me, punishing me for the sin I committed against their values and beliefs, the treatment I received from black folks hurt even worse. I was looking up to them for support, but I found out that there were more blacks than whites who didn’t want anything to do with me.

To join the Heritage, you had to pay the cost. Jackie, Muhammad, Smith, Carlos, and Flood all risk and lost something. With the exception of Colin Kaepernick, many current players made political negotiations with the leagues, wore T-shirts, and asked permission to protest without direct skin in the game. Yet, being black linked them, in some ways, to the same fights of old, because despite their celebrity, the players were fighting for the same group of people, still on the bottom, still at the mercy of the service revolver.

Smith and Carlos’s iconic moment from fifty years ago would be consecrated in 2005 by San Jose State, where both men had been students and competed, with a twenty-two-foot statue depicting the event. It’s a moment that reminds us that history didn’t happen that long ago. The racial injustice Smith and Carlos were protesting against is the same injustice Colin Kaepernick protested against by taking a knee. While both men sacrificed their careers and their livelihoods, they inspired other Black athletes like Kaepernick, post-9/11, to speak out against injustice. Their legacy tells of the resilience of the Black athlete-activist and the work that remains for America to do in order to achieve racial equality.