By Susan Pawlak-seaman
Live and Learn
August 04, 2008
Looking back 40 years, there are a lot of things I clearly remember.
The assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F.
Kennedy in April and June of 1968, respectively.
The ongoing protests against the War in Vietnam which grew
increasingly unpopular with each passing day.
The political unrest that came to a violent head at the Democratic
National Convention in Chicago, where names like Abbie Hoffman, Jerry
Rubin and "Yippies" were forever engraved in history.
Yet until recently, there was one event of 1968 that I'd tucked
somewhere in the dusty corners of my mind: a seminal moment in the
civil rights movement that occurred during the 1968 Olympics.
I submit to you the names of John Carlos and Tommie Smith.
If you can't instantly conjure up their faces, think back (if you're
old enough) to the 1968 Summer Games. And if you happen not to have
been born then, just thumb through the pages of any photographic
chronicle of that time.
You'll resurrect an unforgettable image: three men standing on the
Olympic medal podium in Mexico City. Two of them are black and
wearing the colors of the USA; as "The Star-Spangled Banner" plays
and the American flag is hoisted as a symbol of victory, these two
young men do something symbolic of their own.
Closing their eyes and bowing their heads, they raise their fists
skyward as a display of Black Power. Or, as Smith and Carlos would
later explain, as a symbol of Black Power in America and unity in
As a 15-year-old soon-to-be high school junior, I was somewhat aware
of the furor their actions created. But it wasn't until four decades
later a night in mid-July when my husband and I happened to be
watching ESPN's ESPY awards that I truly realized the price Carlos
and Smith had paid.
Not only were they suspended from their national team and banned from
the Olympic Village where the athletes lived during the games, they
were also vilified for years to come. Reaction to their act of civil
disobedience was so strong that they and their families even received
Certainly, while there were both blacks and whites who supported them
from the very start, there were too many who failed to recognize the
powerful statement Carlos and Smith had made in a racially divided world.
While eventually the nation came to its senses and began to accord
these two men the respect they deserve, it was far too long in
coming. Yet, when John Carlos and Tommie Smith stepped forward to
accept the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage at last month's ESPYs, they
showed no signs of bitterness.
Instead, there was acceptance that what they did on that Olympic
stage was what they had to do in that highly charged moment in time.
They knew what they were getting themselves into, they knew what they
were risking, by raising their fists against discrimination and
oppression. By taking a stand before the eyes of the entire world,
they knew there would be a price to pay.
But bravely, Tommie Smith and John Carlos did it anyway, prepared for
the considerable consequences.
And 40 years later, we and our country are a better place because
they did. Because they dared.
Contact Susan Pawlak-Seaman at sseaman@-s-t.com.