October 16, 1968
Location: Mexico City, Mexico + California, America
On October 16, 1968, at the Summer Olympics in Mexico City, Tommie Smith and John Carlos took their places on the medal stand to receive their respective 200-meter gold and bronze medals. As the American national anthem played the two men bowed their heads and each raised a clenched fist clad in a black leather glove. The political statement they made with their Black Power salute would become one of the most memorable moments of any Olympic Game.
Tommie Smith was born in Clarksville, Texas, and moved with his family to Lemoore, California where they worked as sharecroppers. As was the practice in many families at the time, Smith joined his relatives in performing chores on the farm. When Smith began to run track his father allowed him to leave the fields to focus on sports and school. But this was on the condition that he win otherwise he would have to return to helping with farm work. Smith took the agreement seriously and came to regard his natural speed on the track as a potential tool to help him obtain an education and leave farm work behind.
Born in Harlem, New York, John Carlos was a standout track and field athlete by high school. He spent a year studying at East Texas State University on a sports scholarship before transferring to San Jose State University (SJSU). Carlos continued to flourish and made a great showing at the 1967 Pan-American games, winning bronze for the 200-meter race.
Smith had also been racking up wins and setting records on the track, holding an amazing 11 world records for various sprint distances at one point. Yet, despite being a star athlete at SJSU, Smith still had to deal with various issues stemming from the school’s unequal treatment of Black athletes with regards to on-campus resources and academics. A key issue is that Black athletes were often prevented from graduating because they were pushed towards limited courses that would maintain their eligibility for sports while they were steered away from the more rigorous academic courses required to graduate.
In response to this unfair treatment, Smith, Carlos, and other members of the United Black Students for Action (USBA) launched an on-campus boycott that forced the SJSU to cancel the 1967 season’s first football game. Smith and Carlos met Harry Edwards, a former student-athlete who had become a sociologist and founded the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR).
Edward’s goal was to bring attention to America’s civil and human rights issues by getting Black athletes to boycott the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. While Smith, Carlos, and other athletes supported the OPHR, they ultimately decided against the boycott. But the idea had been sparked to use the Olympics to stage some kind of a protest.
It was decided at the last moment that the men would stage their protest during the medal ceremony using what they had on hand. At first glance, what’s most noticeable about Carlos’ and Smith’s act of defiance are their raised fists in black gloves. But it was later explained that there was quite a bit of symbolism in their uniform and accessories on the podium.
The left glove symbolized Black unity and the right glove Black power. Appearing with Black socks and no shoes represented Black poverty while an unzipped jacket signified support of the working class. The beads and scarves around their necks were worn to commemorate the memory of lynching victims.
The protest was certainly a public display of solidarity with the Civil Rights Movement that was raging in America. But it was also a call to reinstate Muhammad Ali as heavyweight boxing champ after he’d been stripped of his title. The salute was a demand for real change in American sports going beyond just integrating White leagues to hiring more Black coaches. And for an international stand to be taken by ostracizing African countries that practiced apartheid as well as removal of the head of the International Olympic Committee who had a reputation for being racist, sexist, and anti-Semitic.
Tommie Smith’ and John Carlos’ Black Power Salute lasted all of about maybe 90-seconds but its impact and ramifications would be long-lasting. After an initial hush, the crowd made their disapproval known with boos and racist language. The International Olympic Committee President banned them from the Olympic Games. They were denounced by the United States Olympic Committee and given notice to leave the Olympic Village within 48 hours. Their return to America brought more consequences as they were banned for a period from amateur sports, old friends distanced themselves, and they received anonymous death threats.
The ban was eventually lifted and while Smith didn’t return to amateur sports, Carlos had a stellar year in 1969. Both men graduated from SJSU, had brief careers in the National Football League, and later became teachers and coaches. It took time but eventually, they came to be viewed as heroes and worked with the United States Olympic Committee.
- Bailey, Analis. 2020. “Tommie Smith, John Carlos Did the Black Power Salute at the Olympics on This Day in 1968.” USA Today. Gannett Satellite Information Network. October 16, 2020. https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/olympics/2020/10/16/today-sports-history-black-power-salute-1968-summer-olympics/3671856001/.
- Davis, David. 2008. “Olympic Athletes Who Took a Stand.” Smithsonian.com. Smithsonian Institution. August 1, 2008. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/articles/olympic-athletes-who-took-a-stand-593920/.
- “John Carlos’s Biography.” 2006. The HistoryMakers. March 29, 2006. https://www.thehistorymakers.org/biography/john-carlos-41.
- Ruffin, Herbert G. 2009. “John Carlos (1945- ).” Blackpast. Blackpast.org. February 17, 2009. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/john-carlos-1945/.
- Ruffin, Herbert G. 2011. “Tommie Smith (1944- ).” Blackpast. Blackpast.org. April 21, 2011. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/smith-tommie-1944/#:~:text=Tommie%20Smith%20is%20best%20known,family%20worked%20as%20field%20laborers.
- Shapiro, Michael. 2020. “Tommie Smith on 1968 Olympic Protest with John Carlos.” Sports Illustrated. ABG-SI LLC. August 12, 2020. https://www.si.com/olympics/2020/08/12/tommie-smith-john-carlos-1968-olympics-protest-athlete-activism.
- Steele, David. 2020. “Tommie Smith: Using His Speed to Attract Attention: Olympic Hall of Fame.” United States Olympic & Paralympic Museum. U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee. July 31, 2020. https://usopm.org/tommie-smith-using-his-speed-to-attract-attention/.
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