Now’s here’s a book I am eager to read when it is available: The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment that Changed the World (Haymarket Books, 2011) will give me insights into the life of a man with a sports image more memorable than Dwight Clark’s catch or ABC’s Wide World of Sports’, “and the agony of defeat.” As far as the history of the progress of race and sports in America is concerned, John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s protest at the 200-meters race medal ceremony stands alongside of Jesse Owen’s victory’s in the face of Hitler and Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color barrier in professional baseball. Carlos and Smith did not allow small achievements in racial relations in American sports to obscure the need for greater progress on race in the entire country. The 1968 Olympics gave them a platform for speaking to the nation. If one does not allow revisionism to interpret the moment of the protest, even Carlos and Smith’s choice of Black Power symbols now can be understood with sympathy and gratefulness.
Dave Zinn, the author, is a great sports writer.
Here is more on the protest from The Beachside Resident (with cover image from amazon.com):
Tommie Smith and John Carlos Raise Their Fists
They stood barefoot on the medal podium at the Mexico City 1968 Olympics, beads dangling from their necks. As America’s national anthem commenced, sprinters Tommie Smith (b. 1944) — the son of a migrant worker — and Harlem’s John Carlos (b. 1945) raised their black-gloved fists in the air.
Dave Zirin calls it, “arguably the most enduring image in sports history,” but hastens to add, “the image has stood the test of time, the politics that led to that moment have been cast aside by capitalism’s commitment to political amnesia; its political teeth extracted.”
“I didn’t do what I did as an athlete; I raised my voice in protest as a man,” John Carlos told Zirin in 2003. The protest voiced by Carlos and Smith produced a firestorm as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) not only forced the U.S. Olympic Committee to withdraw the two world-class sprinters from the upcoming relays, the IOC had them expelled from the U.S. Olympic team.
“We didn’t come up there with any bombs,” says Carlos. “We were trying to wake the country up and waken the world up, too.”
Contrary to Rosa Park-like rumors, Carlos and Smith were not acting alone or spontaneously. Teammates at San Jose State College, they had both been involved in a planned Olympic boycott by black athletes. “In the fall of 1967, amateur black athletes formed Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) to organize a boycott of the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City,” Zirin explains. The OPHR founding statement read, in part:
“We must no longer allow this country to use a few so-called Negroes to point out to the world how much progress she has made in solving her racial problems when the oppression of Afro-Americans is greater than it ever was. We must no longer allow the sports world to pat itself on the back as a citadel of racial justice when the racial injustices of the sports world are infamously legendary… any black person who allows himself to be used in the above manner is a traitor because he allows racist whites the luxury of resting assured that those black people in the ghettos are there because that is where they want to be. So we ask why should we run in Mexico only to crawl home?”
The OPHR also demanded the restoration of Muhammad Ali’s heavyweight title (stripped due to his resistance to the military draft), the removal of white supremacist Avery Brundage as head of the United States Olympic Committee, and the “disinviting” of two apartheid states, South Africa and Rhodesia.
The IOC made the gesture of conceding on the third demand… a move that cleverly blunted the threat of a boycott. Carlos and Smith were far from satisfied. Thus, on the second day of the Games, when Smith set a world record in the 200 meters and Carlos placed third, they had a stage on which to stand barefoot.
“We wanted the world to know that in Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, South Central Los Angeles, Chicago, that people were still walking back and forth in poverty without even the necessary clothes to live,” says Carlos. “We have kids that don’t have shoes even today. It’s not like the powers that be can’t provide these things. They can send a spaceship to the moon, or send a probe to Mars, yet they can’t give shoes? They can’t give health care? I’m just not naive enough to accept that.”
The beads around their necks were for “those individuals that were lynched, or killed that no one said a prayer for, that were hung tarred. It was for those thrown off the side of the boats in the Middle Passage.”
Again, contrary to whitewashed history, the two men were not acting without support. “When the silver medalist, a runner from Australia named Peter Norman saw what was happening, he ran into the stands to grab an OPHR patch off a supporter’s chest to show his solidarity on the medal stand,” Zirin adds.
As the American flag began its ascent up the flagpole and the opening notes of the “Star Spangled Banner” played, Carlos and Smith stood barefoot with heads bowed and fists raised in a black power salute. The fallout — both positive and negative — was instantaneous.
“They violated one of the basic principles of the Olympic Games: that politics play no part whatsoever in them,” Brundage declared. The Los Angeles Times called the raised fists a “Nazi-like salute.”
Wyomia Tyus, anchor of the women’s gold medal-winning 4×100 team, dedicated her team’s gold medal to Carlos and Smith, while the all-white crew team issues a public statement announcing their “moral commitment to support our black teammates in their efforts to dramatize the injustices and inequities which permeate our society.”
“It was a watershed moment of resistance,” writes Zirin.” But Carlos and Smith are not merely creatures of nostalgia. As we build resistance today at war, theirs is a living history we should celebrate.”
“It’s not something I can lay on my sheld and forget about,” concludes Tommie Smith. “My heart and soul are still on that team, and I still believe everything we were trying to fight for in 1968 has not been resolved and will be part of our future.”
Excerpted from the book “50 Revolutions You’re Not Supposed To Know” by Mickey Z., courtesy of The Disinformation Company (www.disinfo.com).