Tommie Smith and John Carlos on Higher Ground

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It remains one of the most iconic photographs in sporting history. Heads bowed, black-gloved fists raised aloft, on a sweltering hot night in Mexico City, U.S. athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos propelled themselves into the history books.

The image still resonates with quiet dignity and a palpable rage that is almost shocking to behold, especially in these politically neutered times. We live in an
age of bland sporting automata, steeped in the language of PR, super-aware of their salaried roles as ambassadors of Nike, Adidas and Reebok, and afraid of saying or doing anything that might alienate their sponsors.

Black Power Sporting Fist Salute

Tommie Smith (C) and John Carlos (R), first and third place winners in the 200 metre race, protest at America’s treatment of its black citizens with the Black Power salute as they stand on the winner’s podium at the Olympic games in Mexico City, October 19, 1968. Australian silver medallist Peter Norman stands by unaware of history in the making.

Contrast this with 1968, when sociologist Dr Harry Edwards declared the ‘revolt of the black athlete,’ and added the voice of America’s black sportsmen to the civil rights movement. Dr Edwards was the organiser of the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR), and the group’s founding statement proclaimed that:

“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 matter 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?”

Smith and Carlos’ distinguished, impassioned protest was to be the defining moment of the OPHR, the ’68 Olympics and – for better or worse – of their lives. History will remember them as heroes and also as martyrs. They made a stand for what they believed in and earned immortality – but they also paid a heavy for price for what they did that night.

Tommie Smith was born in Clarksville, Texas in 1944, John Carlos a year later, in Harlem. Both were raised in poverty – Smith was one of 12 children, the son of a ‘dirt farmer,’ while Carlos lived in an apartment behind his father’s shoe store with his four brothers and sisters. Like many young black men, sport seemed to offer them the possibility of a better future, and their burgeoning athletic prowess won them scholarships to San Jose State College. It soon became clear that the two had the potential to become world-class athletes.

Smith went on to break records over 220 yards, 400 metres, and 440 yards, but his favoured distance was 200 metres, where his so-called ‘Tommie-Jet Gear’ allowed him to tap into a new burst of pace whilst travelling at high speed, leaving opponents trailing in his wake. However, in the Olympic trials, Carlos was to
defeat Smith over 200 metres in a world record time, setting up the prospect of an American one-two in the 1968 Games.

But Carlos and Smith had more on their minds than medals and records. At San Jose State, they became friendly with Dr Harry Edwards, who asked them, and all the other black athletes selected to represent the United States in the Mexico Olympics, to boycott the games, in order to bring the world’s attention to the injustices facing black America, and to expose how the U.S. used black athletes to project a lie of racial harmony at home and abroad.

The late 60s were a time of change and struggle – 1968 saw the assassinations of Dr Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy; anti-war protests coincided with the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, which saw the U.S. lurching towards ignominy and defeat; only 10 days before the games were due to begin, hundreds of students occupying the National University in Mexico City were slaughtered by Mexican Security forces. The atmosphere was ablaze with a revolutionary spirit that is hard to imagine ever emerging again, especially in a U.S. that seems to be docilely submitting to a right-wing hegemony left behind by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Co, after an ever so brief fling with the idea of change. While the proposed boycott did not occur, OPHR members decided to compete in Mexico and protest individually. Carlos, in particular, was by now a political firebrand who had been in support of a full boycott. But, as he stated many years later:

“…not everyone was down with that plan. A lot of the athletes thought that winning medals would supercede or protect them from racism. But even if you won the medal it ain’t going to save your momma. It ain’t going to save your sister or children. It might give you 15 minutes of fame, but what about the rest of your life? I’m not saying they didn’t have the right to follow their dreams, but to me the medal was nothing but the carrot on the stick”

Sporting Heroes

John Carlos took the bronze medal in a time of 20.10 seconds during the heats of the 200m at the 1968 Mexico Olympics.
© George Herringshaw / Sporting Heroes Collection Ltd.

However, he and Smith surely knew that their chance would come, as they renewed their rivalry on the track and made swift progress through to the 200m final, with Carlos establishing a new Olympic record during the preliminary rounds. In the final, Smith drew his least-favourite inside lane, and ran with a strained thigh muscle, yet still came through to win the Gold medal in a then world record time of 19.83 seconds, while Carlos finished in third to earn the Bronze medal. Carlos controversially went on to claim that he slowed down in the finishing straight in order to allow Smith to win as, “the Gold medal meant more to him.”

This was a comment typical of a relationship that was fractious at best. The two were always colleagues rather than friends, as many people have assumed. However, as they took to the podium, they were in perfect harmony, coordinated in an eloquent, planned protest that would send shockwaves around the sporting and political worlds, and which would reverberate throughout the rest of their lives.

Stepping up to receive his Gold medal, Smith wore a single black glove on his right hand which, when he raised it above his head, was to symbolise black power in America. Around his neck he wore a black scarf, representing black pride. Carlos wore a glove on his left hand to symbolise unity in black America, and around his neck he wore a beaded African necklace that he said was,“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.” Both stood shoeless in black socks, to represent the enduring, abject poverty of black America.

As the Stars and Stripes were raised high above the stadium in Mexico City, and the bombastic strains of the Star Spangled Banner blared out over the tannoy, Smith and Carlos raised their fists and lowered their heads, disassociating themselves from the nationalistic triumphalism of the moment and sending a message of rage and defiance to the world. A thousand flash bulbs popped, history was made, and the lives of John Carlos and Tommie Smith changed forever.

There is an interesting side-note in the creation of this eternal image, in the shape of the silver medallist, Australian sprinter Peter Norman. When studying the photograph, Norman seems to represent a bland, white-bread counterpoint to the two black athletes. Their outstretched arms seem to make them tower above him; they gaze mournfully downwards as he stares, obediently, straight ahead, cutting an almost gormless figure, seeming to personify all the self-absorbed myopia of the white sporting world. However, Norman too played a part in the protest. Opposed to his own country’s pro-white immigration policy, he grabbed an OPHR badge from the crowd, and wore it on the podium in an act of solidarity with the two Americans.

The fallout from Smith and Carlos’ protest was immediate and devastating. The International Olympic Committee demanded that the U.S Olympic Committee ban them from the games. The U.S. team refused, but the IOC threatened to ban the entire American team, forcing the USOC to climb down. Smith and Carlos were sent home in disgrace, to face the wrath of a media who were both bewildered and outraged by their gesture. As a 1967 U.S. News and World Report put it, athletics was one arena, “where Negroes have struck it rich” – that two black athletes had chosen this forum to protest was perceived as uppity ingratitude. The press showed no mercy. The athletes’ bowed heads were perceived as disrespectful towards the American flag, and the clenched fists mistakenly interpreted as in support of the feared Black Panthers. Yet, never afraid of contradicting themselves, other media outlets described their “Nazi-like salute,” with Chicago columnist Brent Musburger dubbing them “black – skinned Storm-troopers.” Time magazine ran a picture of the Olympic insignia, replacing the motto “Faster, Higher, Stronger” with the words “Angrier, Nastier, Uglier.”

Carlos did little to placate a furious white America with his public comments: “We’re sort of show horses out there for the white people. They give us peanuts, pat us on the back and say, ‘Boy, you did fine’.”

Tommie Smith threw his arms into the air and broke into a wide smile 5 metres before the finish. He shattered the world record with a time of 19.83 seconds.
© Ed Lacey/Sporting Heroes Collection Ltd.

Smith and Carlos found themselves ostracised, struggling to find work, and in receipt of regular death-threats. Smith was forced to attend night-classes when he returned to college, and had to battle to make ends meet: “A rock came through our front window into our living room, where we had the crib…it seemed like everybody hated me. I had no food. My baby was hungry. My wife had no dresses.”

Smith was able to borrow enough money to complete his education, and became a qualified teacher. He spent several years with the Cincinatti Bengals American football team, later moving on to Santa Monica College, where he remains as a social science and healthcare teacher, and coaches athletics.

The outspoken Carlos found life even more difficult, being forced to travel to find whatever work he could, spending time as a security guard, a gardener, a caretaker. His situation became so dire that he was forced to chop up his furniture for firewood to keep his family warm. The stress of life as an out-cast was too much for his wife, who committed suicide.

Years on, Smith and Carlos have been justly recognised as heroes, being inducted into the African American Ethnic Hall of Fame in 2003. But John Carlos still cannot rest: “I don’t feel embraced; I feel like a survivor, like I survived cancer.” He is dismayed that his and Smith’s legacy seems to have been wasted by a generation of black athletes who have reaped the financial rewards of sporting success, but turned their back on their social and political obligations. He believes there is still a battle to be fought, and is contemptuous of those who believe that athletes should be seen and not heard:

“Those people should put all their millions of dollars together and make a factory that builds athlete-robots. Athletes are human-beings. We have feelings too. How can you ask someone to live in the world, to exist in the world, and not have something to say about injustice?”

While Smith seems to have found some peace, Carlos’ revolutionary spirit cannot come to terms with today’s insipid, apolitical, hyper-commodified world of sport. He paid a terrible price for his actions one hot night in Mexico City, but the image that was created there will live forever as a beautiful symbol of defiance. Forty-two years on it burns as fiercely as it ever did, still resonating with all the possibilities of the human spirit. But, for John Carlos, the fight goes on.

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