Striking a Blow for Freedom
The Courageous Story of Tommie Smith and John Carlos
July 20, 2008
At the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, two Black athletes, Tommie Smith
and John Carlos thrust their fists in the air on the victory stand in
a symbolic gesture against the oppressive treatment of Black people.
Forty years later, on July 16, they will be the recipients of the
Arthur Ashe Courageous Award at the ESPY Awards in Los Angeles.1 The
Awards will be televised on Sunday evening, July 20. Previous
recipients of this award include Billie Jean King, the tennis player
who fought for equality of women in tennis, Cathy Freeman, the
Australian 400 meter Olympic champion, who struggled for aboriginal
rights, Muhammad Ali, and Kevin and Pat Tillman. Pat was the
pro-football player who was killed in Afghanistan by friendly fire
and Kevin, his brother, who opposes the crimes of the Bush regime and
fought to expose the government cover-up of the incident when his
brother was killed.2
This is the story of why Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their
fists at the 1968 Olympics and the significance of this historic stand.
* * * * *
It was 1968.
One of those times where it seemed like a whole century of events
gets crammed into a few months or even weeks.
Black neighborhoods across the U.S., smoldering with discontent,
burst into flames of rebellion. Across the ocean, students in Paris
shut down the university. Chicago police attacked protesters at the
Democratic National Convention. National liberation struggles raged
in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The Great Proletarian Cultural
Revolution in socialist China was in full swing. Headlines reflected
intense conflict, winds of change, and sky high dreams. The Vietnam
War... the assassination of Martin Luther King... The Black
Panthers... hundreds of thousands demonstrating against poverty, war,
racism, and women's oppression.
It was on this backdrop that Tommie Smith and John Carlos stepped
onto the stage of history and made their mark.
It was as part of this whole struggle for a better world that these
two men took a courageous stand that today, 40 years later, is
something to remember, cherish, and learn from.
Taking a Stand in Speed City
As star sprinters, for Smith and Carlos it was all about speed. They
were not only tremendous athletes, but their whole style reflected
the attitude of the timessporting shades as they sprinted around the
track. Both men were world-class athletes: Smith held 11 world
records simultaneously, including in the 200 and 400 meters, some
individually and some as a member of a relay team. John Carlos, at
one point, held the 100-meter world record.
Tommie Smith was the seventh in a family of 12 children, growing up
in Clarksville, Texas. His father was a sharecropper and Tommie got
strong working in the fields. He remembers, as a kid, going to the
store to buy ice cream and getting harassed by white racists who told
him to "go back to the jungle."
John Carlos grew up in Harlem and got involved in civil rights and
became an activist at a very young age. In high school he was already
a track star and got a scholarship to East Texas State. He tells how,
"About two minutes after I got there, I noticed that my name changed
from John Carlos to Boy."
The two men ended up going to school at San Jose State College (now
San Jose State University) in California. They joined what became
known as "Speed City''named for the collection of world-class
sprinters trained by the innovative coach, Lloyd C. "Bud" Winter. It
was here that athletes, both Black and white, helped form the Olympic
Project for Human Rights (OPHR), which included athletes trying to
make the 1968 Olympic team.
The OPHR's founding statement pointed out that "the oppression of
Afro-Americans is greater than it ever was" and the athletes
attempted to form a boycott of the Olympics in order to advance their
demands. Three key demands were: (1) "Restore Muhammad Ali's title"
that had been removed because he refused to go into the army and
fight in Vietnam," (2) "Remove Avery Brundage as head of the U.S.
Olympic Committee" because he was a white supremacist and a Nazi
sympathizer, and (3) "Disinvite South Africa and Rhodesia" in order
to support the black freedom struggles in these apartheid states.
When the International Olympic Committee decided not to allow South
Africa and Rhodesia in the Olympics, many of the Black athletes
decided not to boycott the Olympics, but began to look for other ways
As Smith and Carlos, along with others, prepared for the 1968
Olympics, controversy continued to swirl about whether there would
beand whether there should beforms of protests by Black athletes at
the games. Things divided out sharply. Some Black athletes were
saying that they didn't want to make such a sacrifice, that they
really wanted to get a gold medal. While others argued that the times
demandedand this was an opportunity to makea strong statement to
the world about the condition of Black people in the United States,
even if this meant jeopardizing your scholarship or career.
This was the spirit of the times. These were the kinds of big
questions lots of people, especially the youth, were confronting:
What was your life going to be about? Were you going to just "look
out for number one"? Or was your life going to count for something
bigger? Were you going to just try and etch out a life for yourself
in this messed up society? Or were you going to stand with the people
of the world and join the struggle for liberation?
The very idea of Black athletes taking such a defiant, rebellious
stand elicited angry reactionary responses and ugly threats. Athletes
involved with OPHR received death threats and hate mail. And Avery
Brundage, the president of the International Olympic Committee who
was an open racist, publicly stated: "I don't think any of these boys
will be foolish enough to demonstrate at the Olympic games and I
think if they do they'll be promptly sent home."
At the same time, the strong stand by OPHR put a real pole out in
society. And their cause got a lot of support and attracted people in
society very broadly who saw this as part of the overall struggle for
a more just society. That summer, leading up to the Olympics, many
people started wearing the Olympic Project for Human Rights button as
a way to show mass support and say to the world that this really mattered.
Victory and Defiance in Mexico City
October 2, ten days before the Games opened, the Mexican security
forces massacred hundreds of students in Mexico City who were
occupying the National University. When athletes arrived in the city
for the Olympics, the government wanted to give an image of order and
control and the Olympic Stadium was completely surrounded by armed
soldiers. (See "The Year of the 1968 Olympics: A World of Struggle
and Turmoil," online at revcom.us.)
Among the Black athletes there was a lot of tension and anticipation
about what wasor wasn'tgoing to happen. Larry James, who won the
Silver Medal in the 400 meter race, expressed what many of the Black
Olympic athletes were thinking when he recalled: "When you go to the
games you take yourself with you and what you do and how you do it is
going to have an impact."
The performance of the United States men's track team was astounding.
They won 7 of 12 gold medals and smashed five records. Tommie Smith
and John Carlos finished first and third, respectively, in the 200
meters with Smith setting a world record.
The moment came when they were getting ready to take the victory
stand. They were still trying to figure out what to do. At the last
minute, they decided to put on black gloves. Peter Norman, the second
place winner from Australia, wore an OPHR button on the victory
stand. Norman later recounted, "I believed in human rights, I
believed in what these two guys were about to do."
Smith and Carlos stood on the stand with no shoes, their feet only in
black socks. As the national anthem began, both bowed their heads and
raised their fists, covered with the black gloves, in the air. Tommie
Smith had a black scarf around his neck and John Carlos wore beads.
Smith later recalled, "The black fist in the air was only in
recognition of those who had gone, it was a prayer of solidarity, it
was a cry for help by my fellow brothers and sisters in this country,
who had been lynched, who had been shot, who had been bitten by dogs,
who water hoses had been set on, a cry for freedom. You could almost
hear the wind blowing around my fist."
The entire world saw this cry for freedom.
These two men courageously put the struggle of the people ahead of
their own personal interests. And the power of their simple but
profound gesture tremendously inspired peoplethen, and ever since,
for the last four decades.
Immediately afterwards, in an interview with Howard Cosell, Smith
explained the symbolism in their protest: "My raised right hand stood
for the power in black America. Carlos's left hand stood for the
unity of black America. Together, they formed an arch of unity and
power. The black scarf around my neck stood for black pride. The
black socks with no shoes stood for black poverty in racist America.
The totality of our effort was the regaining of black dignity."3
John Carlos, in a recent interview with Dave Zirin, said, "The beads
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. All that was in my mind."
The International Olympic Committee board met the very next morning.
They threatened to disqualify the whole track team for the remainder
of the games. The decision was made to send Smith and Carlos home and
ban them from the Olympic games for life.
The press was relentless with their attacks on Smith and Carlos. The
Los Angeles Times accused them of a "Nazi-like salute." Time Magazine
changed the Olympic motto to "Angrier, Nastier, Uglier." Sportscaster
Brent Musburger called them, "Black-skinned storm troopers."
Despite the fact that they were being attacked broadly for what they
did, Smith and Carlos had many supporters, including the Olympic Crew
Team, all white and entirely from Harvard, who issued the statement:
"We, as individuals, have been concerned about the place of the black
man in American society in their struggle for equal rights. As
members of the U.S. Olympic team, each of us has come to feel a moral
commitment to support our black teammates in their efforts to
dramatize the injustices and inequities which permeate out society."
Once back home, the two athletes received more than 100 death threats
each. Both found it difficult to get a job. John Carlos said in an
interview with Dave Zirin, "We were under tremendous economic stress.
I took any job I could find. I wasn't too proud. Menial jobs,
security jobs, gardener, caretaker, whatever I could do to try to
make ends meet."
To the masses of oppressed people and others who hate the way things
are in this country and in the world, Smith and Carlos were heroes
because they took responsibility for telling the world the way things
are and they never backed down from that stand.
In his autobiography, Silent Gesture, Tommie Smith answers the
question why it is important for celebrities to speak out on social
and political issues. He says, "…if you are one of the world's
greatest in a particular field, as I was in athletics, you have an
avenue, and you have a responsibility to use it, especially if you
have something to say about society and how people are treated,
people who are not in the position to say it themselves or who don't
have the ability to say it."4
In 2002 Erik Grotz, a white student at San Jose State, organized to
raise funds for a statue of Smith and Carlos when he found out about
them and that they attended the school. "I couldn't understand why
the campus didn't acknowledge their efforts as student activists,"
said Grotz. "It would be an inspiration to other students. It would
prove to them they can make an impact now."
The 20-foot statue of Smith and Carlos on the victory stand was
unveiled in October 2005. The second place spot on the podium, where
Peter Norman was standing, was left open, so people could stand there
to have their pictures taken with Smith and Carlos. Norman attended
the unveiling, where he continued to support what Smith and Carlos
had done 37 years prior. Norman was vilified when he returned to
Australia after the 1968 Olympics for wearing the OPHR button on the
medal stand. He, too, was not able to find a job, and when the
Olympics came to Australia in 2000, he was not allowed to be a part
of any events, despite the fact that he was one of the greatest
Olympic sprinters ever.
Norman died in 2006, and Smith and Carlos, who continued to stay in
touch with Norman throughout the years, were pallbearers at his
funeral. About Norman, John Carlos said, "At least me and Tommie had
each other when we came home. When Peter went home, he had to deal
with a nation by himself. He never wavered, never denied that he was
up there with us for a purpose and he never said 'I'm sorry' for his
involvement. That's indicative of who the man was."
1968 was a high tide of struggle against the oppression of Black
people in this country, and what Tommie Smith and John Carlos did at
the Olympics is one of the greatest symbols of this struggle. In
today's world acts of courage, like what Smith and Carlos did, stand
out and really do make a difference. And there is a real need, now
more than ever, for people to follow such footstepsto dare to go
against the tide, defy the oppressive status quo and fight to bring
about revolutionary change.
To be recognized as the recipients of the Arthur Ashe Courageous
Award just brings that point home, and Tommie Smith said it well at
the unveiling at the statue where he expressed being proud of the
past, but also acknowledging the challenges before us. "I don't feel
vindicated," Smith said. "To be vindicated means that I did something
wrong. I didn't do anything wrong. I just carried out a
responsibility. We felt a need to represent a lot of people who did
more than we did but had no platform, people who suffered long before
I got to the victory stand....We're celebrated as heroes by some, but
we're still fighting for equality."
Tommie Smith and John Carlos never got the pro contracts or the big
endorsements. They didn't "get paid" off their tremendous victory.
Instead, they used their moment in the limelight to make a powerful
statement about justice... and to move forward the struggle for liberation.
The powers-that-be made them pay dearly for standing up.
But they've never renounced it. They've never backed down. They've
Was it worth it? Worth it to sacrifice so much to strike a blow for freedom?
Well, ask yourself this: Who does history remember? Who do the masses cherish?
The ones who go for self?
Or those who take a stand for the people, no matter what the cost?
1. Arthur Ashe was the first Black tennis player to win the U.S. Open
Tennis championship in 1968 and the Wimbledon title in 1975. He was
the first African-American player named to the U.S. Davis Cup team
and later was appointed captain of the Davis Cup team.
In 1983, along with Harry Belafonte, he founded Artists and Athletes
Against Apartheid, which worked toward raising awareness of apartheid
policies and lobbying for sanctions and embargoes against the South
African government. In 1985, he was arrested outside the South
African embassy in Washington during an anti-apartheid demonstration.
He was also arrested during a protest against U.S. policy toward
Haitian refugees outside the White House.
He contracted AIDS after he received an HIV infected blood
transfusion following bypass surgery. In his memoir, Days of Grace,
he wrote, "I do not like being the personification of a problem, much
less a problem involving a killer disease, but I know I must seize
these opportunities to spread the word." In the last year of his
life, he founded the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS,
which raised money for research into treating, curing and preventing
AIDS, the end goal being the eradication of the disease.
On February 6, 1993 Arthur Ashe died of AIDS-related pneumonia in New
York at the age of 49. His funeral was attended by nearly 6,000
people. The U.S. Tennis Association named the center stadium at the
USTA National Tennis Center the Arthur Ashe Stadium. [back]
2. See Revolution #68, November 5, 2006, "Kevin Tillman and the
Killing Lies of the U.S. Army." [back]
3. Silent Gesture: The Autobiography of Tommie Smith, Tommie Smith
with David Steele, Temple University Press, 2007, p. 173. [back]
4. Silent Gesture, p. 38. [back]