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.
By Howard Bryant | Look at the ugly faces, twisted but not betrayed. The betrayed face contains a hint of hurt, that layer of justified anger that makes you stop and feel a little compassion. This is not that. These are the faces of rage. They don’t get it. Well, that part isn’t exactly true. They get some of it. They get half of it, their half, the half that convinces them they’ve always been the good guys, and when you’re the good guys, then there is no other half. When they look down from their seats at the football field, they get the enormous American flag unfurled across the field bigger than Rhode Island. They get the color guard, faces stoic, grimly professional, the immaculate Navy uniforms, with the porcelain-white gloves holding the massive flag. And the soldiers? They always get the soldiers.
For Black athletes, sports and politics have always been intertwined. Their very presence on the field is a political act. Some athletes have used their status and influence to speak out against racial injustice; others have remained silent. From legends like Paul Robeson and Jackie Robinson to current icons like Colin Kaepernick and LeBron James, the heritage of Black activism within sports is deep and complex. Journalist Howard Bryant details it in full in The Heritage: Black Athletes, a Divided America, and the Politics of Patriotism.
Black History Month is the time that connections need to be made between the ancestors of Black heritage and the living inheritors. As educator Christopher Emdin wrote on our blog, the stories of past battles should never be told as if they are over or conquered. The stories are alive and playing out today. The connections are more powerful when they’re grounded in the context of history. In the spirit of Emdin’s observations, we’re offering a list of recommending reading to bridge the past with the present.