Mexico City, 16 October 1968. Two black athletes stand on the podium at the Olympic Games with their fists raised. They wear black gloves and keep their heads bowed throughout the US national anthem. (» The famous image)
This silent protest by sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos was beamed across the world and instantly become an iconic image of the turmoil and rage sweeping across the US as black Americans fought back against centuries of racism.
Tommie Smith explained the protest in an interview recorded straight after it. “I wore a black right-hand glove and Carlos wore the left-hand glove of the same pair,” he said.
“My raised hand stood for the power in black America. Carlos’s raised 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 sock with no shoes stood for black poverty in racist America. The totality of our effort was the regaining of black dignity.”
John Carlos explained that his tracksuit top was unzipped to show solidarity with workers. He wore beads “for those individuals that were lynched or killed that no one said a prayer for, that were hung and tarred.
“It was for those thrown off the side of the boats in the Middle Passage [the frequently lethal voyage from Africa to America during the slave trade].”
Today Tommie Smith is still campaigning against racism. He came to London this month, invited by Camden council as part of its Black History Season to speak at public meetings and tour local schools.
Socialist Worker caught up with Tommie during his visit. He revealed that far from being a spontaneous affair, the Olympics protest came out of meticulous planning and months of anti-racist campaigning.
“We developed a platform called the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) in 1967,” Tommie told Socialist Worker. “We wanted to highlight the importance of young black athletes getting involved in the politics of a country that did not represent people of colour fairly.”
Tommie was a student at San Jose State University in California, which was famed for its athletics coaching. Almost all the black students there were on sports scholarships.
Tommie explains that this was pretty much the only way for black students to get into college – and that once they had the opportunity to study, many blossomed academically.
One of these was the sociologist Harry Edwards, who was central to setting up OPHR. Tommie had known him as a student, but he came back to the university as a lecturer.
San Jose was only 40 miles from the city of Oakland, where the radical Black Panther Party had recently been established. Edwards was influenced by its ideas of militant action against racism and economic injustice.
Other incidents provided a direct inspiration for student athletes to become politically active, particularl the persecution of boxer Muhammad Ali for his refusal to be drafted into the US army and fight in Vietnam.
The best black athletes at the college knew they would be picked for the US Olympic team the following year. They issued a statement that declared, “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 industry are infamously legendary.”
The OPHR soon gained a reputation for activism. It called for the racist regimes of Rhodesia and South Africa to be excluded from the Olympics.
It demanded the removal of the racist bigot and Nazi sympathiser Avery Brundage as president of the International Olympic Committee. It demanded black representation on the US Olympic committee, given the number of black athletes on the team.
Soon the OPHR was winning praise from black activists including Martin Luther King, H Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael. The group inspired other athletes around the country. Tommie himself had gained notoriety when he appeared on TV and threatened a boycott of the Olympics by black athletes.
“There was an OPHR meeting only a few days before the games began,” says Tommy. “We decided not to boycott the games – but each athlete individually knew of things that needed to change in America. Each individual would decide how to make those things recognised.”
Tommie felt that some kind of protest was vital. “I didn’t go just as an athlete to run and look good and do what the American public thought black athletes should do – shuffle and jive up to the victory stand, put their hands on their hearts during the national anthem, then come home and be relegated back to second class citizens.
“Yes, we were free monetarily and academically, but soulfully we were not. We were pawns to be used in the service of America. ‘Home of the brave’ and ‘land of the free’ and all that stuff – it’s such a lie.”
Boos and catcalls
Though the protest is today portrayed as a heroic thing to have done, the reaction at the time was very different. Tommie and John Carlos’s actions were greeted with outrage by the world’s media. I asked Tommie if he felt any support from the wider world at the time of the protest.
“No. As we stepped off the victory stand and walked across the green grass and across the track and back into the tunnel we received boos, catcalls. We were called animals and all sorts of names – including ‘nigger’.”
The US Olympic committee sent the athletes back to the US within 48 hours of their protest.
When the pair got back to San Jose, they were treated as heroes by the other students and paraded around the campus.
The authorities took a different line. They were ostracised by the athletic world and never considered for the 1972 Olympics. This was despite Tommie holding a still unequalled 11 simultaneous track and field world records.
Tommie had signed a deal to become a professional American footballer before going – but soon found himself dropped. He had to travel around to find work. It was years before he was able to become a college athletics coach.
“It was a long time before I realised how important the protest was,” he explained. “Back in 1968 being from the backwoods of Texas, it wasn’t an easy thing for me to pull out the words that would make people understand how my heart felt.
“What we did was a silent gesture, but it was heard around the world. Now I have the words and I’m explaining it. We’re doing a pretty good job and people are coming to understand it.”
A lifetime of fighting racism and poverty
Tommie Smith was born to a family of sharecroppers in Texas. His family lived in poverty, but he is proud of his background.
“My mother and father understood work, hardship and dealing with the family,” he told Socialist Worker. “We didn’t have the modern technology that kids have now. Our day to day basis was cows, hogs, wood, hunting, growing our own vegetables.”
When he was five years old, the family took a bus to California to look for a better life. Once they arrived they lived in a labour camp for the best part of two years, tied to it until they had paid off the fare for the two-day bus journey.
In California Tommie had to deal with white people for the first time. He was confronted by face-to-face racism rather than simply the poverty that it caused.
“I saw my mother and father being treated like second class citizens as they did what they had to do to survive. My dad couldn’t look white folk straight in the face without bowing his head.”
But Tommie grew up at the time of the Civil Rights Movement – and attitudes were changing among African Americans.
“In earlier generations you could be killed just for who you were or for meeting a white man’s gaze,” he says. “But my father told us God’s laws were greater than those that kept us down. He moved to create an atmosphere of pride and freedom. He didn’t have a lick of education – but he had common sense.
“I certainly believed in keeping my head up high and walking with a smile on my face. I wanted everyone to know how I wanted to be treated.”
Tommie has gone on to work in education and has a PhD in sociology. And despite the personal troubles the Olympic Games protest caused him, he is positive about changes that have occurred in the US since the 1960s.
“Today we have a black American candidate for president. That is not because Tommie Smith stood on the victory stand – it is because so many before me and after me stood up too.”
Silent Gesture, Tommie Smith’s autobiography, is available for £10.99 from Bookmarks, phone 020 7637 1848 » www.bookmarks.uk.com
Tommie was visiting Britain as part of the Camden Black History Season – go to » www.camden.gov.uk/blackhistoryseason for details.
Socialist Worker Appeal has produced 1968 T-shirts – go to » www.swappeal.org.uk