The Olympics at Amistad, Part II: John Carlos and Tommie Smith

1968 was a turbulent year in the United States, a year which saw the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the violent Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and the emergence of George Wallace as a viable presidential candidate. It is no surprise that the Olympic games that year were also highly politicized.

A global boycott of the 1968 Summer Olympics began to organize in response to the International Olympic Committee’s vote to readmit South Africa into the Olympic games, although the country had been banned in 1964 for its unyielding commitment to apartheid. Further, the possibility of an Olympic boycott by African American athletes began to foment on the campus of San Jose State University, where sociologist Harry Edwards descried the accomplishments of Black athletes amidst wider social inequity: “What value is it to a black man to win a medal if he returns to a hell in Harlem?”  Lee Evans, John Carlos, and Tommie Smith – all members of the SJSU track team – were among the most vocal of the boycott’s supporters.

John Carlos and Tommie Smith, the gold and bronze medalists in the 200m sprint at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, decided not to boycott the games, and instead used their opportunity atop the Olympic podium to make a poignant political statement. As the US national anthem played, both men averted their gaze from the rising American flag and raised their gloved fists in the air – a lasting protest against abysmal human rights conditions in the US and beyond.  Carlos and Smith were expelled from the Olympics and both men – in addition to Australian sprinter and silver medalist Peter Norman, who openly supported their cause – faced long ostracism from track and field (Carlos and Smith served as pallbearers at Norman’s funeral in 2006).

(Here, Professor Harry Edwards, John Carlos, Tommie Smith, and much of the San Jose State University track team sign a petition initiated by the American Committee on Africa in banning South Africa from any participation in the Olympics as long as that nation remained committed to its apartheid policy.)

Posted by Andrew Salinas

Image from the American Committee on Africa records and may not be reproduced without permission

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