Socialist Worker

Salute: a powerful political document of the 1968 Olympics

by Arnie Joahill
Issue No. 2311

Tommie Smith and John Carlos, two 1968 Olympic medal winners, famously gave the Black Power salute from the podium. A new film, Salute, places their actions in the context of the events taking place around the world at the time.

It explores the rise of John Carlos and Tommie Smith, and how they found sports institution after institution riddled with racism. And it shows how they had to fight hard to establish themselves as the few black athletes at the Olympics.

The year 1968 was one of extreme political turmoil. Martin Luther King, presidential nominee Bobby Kennedy and black panther Fred Hampton were all killed.

The Harlem riots were a response to King’s murder. Hundreds of people were beaten, thousands incarcerated and one killed.

Hundreds more were massacred in Tlatelolco, a poor district in Mexico City, amid riots against the gentrification of the community in the run up to the Olympics.

And a deadly war that killed well over a million people was waged by the US in Vietnam. Tens of thousands of students marched against it. Many black people died at the hands of the police.

It was a time when ordinary black people faced off and resisted police attacks day after day. The scale of police brutality was not only visible to Tommie Smith and John Carlos. It was visible to millions of people across the world on television.


Both Olympic athletes faced scrutiny and threats against their careers and livelihoods by the Olympic board. The film runs through their thoughts, the planning of the salute and the impact it had. On that day their careers as athletes ended.

They began their journey as political activists and became a source of inspiration to millions of people struggling to survive and resisting police brutality.

The second part of the film is dedicated to the lesser-known story of Peter Norman, the second-placed white Australian athlete on the podium. It looks at the solidarity he showed with Tommie and John.

Peter Norman went onto the stand as a participant in the black power salute, not as a bystander. He was well aware of Australia’s own history of racism.

Peter faced a massive attack against him and his family from the media, racist organisations and the government. It blighted their lives and put an immense pressure on his family.

To this day John Carlos and Tommie Smith consider Peter Norman as a brother. So Salute is also a tribute to him, a white athlete who became a hero to black America.

This film comes highly recommended—it is a real account from those involved fighting against injustice in a deeply racist society.

Salute is on general release from Friday

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Tue 10 Jul 2012, 18:01 BST
Issue No. 2311
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