On this day in 1968, Americans, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, and Australian, Peter Norman, all wore badges for the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR), and Smith and Carlos raised their fists in the air — not in a Black Power salute, but as John Carlos later wrote in his autobiography, in a salute for human rights.
On the morning of October 16, 1968, U.S. athlete Tommie Smith won the 200 meter racein a world-record time of 19.83 seconds, with Australia’sPeter Norman second with a time of 20.06 seconds, and the U.S.’s John Carlos in third place with a time of 20.10 seconds. After the race was completed, the three went to collect their medals at the podium. The two U.S. athletes received their medals shoeless, but wearing black socks, to represent black poverty. Smith wore a black scarf around his neck to represent black pride, Carlos had his tracksuit top unzipped to show solidarity with all blue collar workers in the U.S. and wore a necklace of beads which he described “were for those individuals that were lynched, or killed and 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.” All three athletes wore Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) badges after Norman, a critic of Australia’s White Australia Policy, expressed empathy with their ideals. Sociologist Harry Edwards, the founder of the OPHR, had urged black athletes to boycott the games; reportedly, the actions of Smith and Carlos on October 16, 1968 were inspired by Edwards’ arguments.
Both U.S. athletes intended on bringing black gloves to the event, but Carlos forgot his, leaving them in the Olympic Village. It was the Australian, Peter Norman, who suggested Carlos wear Smith’s left-handed glove, this being the reason behind him raising his left hand, as opposed to his right, differing from the traditional Black Power salute. When “The Star-Spangled Banner” played, Smith and Carlos delivered the salute with heads bowed, a gesture which became front page news around the world. As they left the podium they were booed by the crowd.Smith later said “If I win, I am American, not a black American. But if I did something bad, then they would say I am a Negro. We are black and we are proud of being black. Black America will understand what we did tonight.”
This “silent gesture” was viewed as “a deliberate and violent breach of the fundamental principles of the Olympic spirit,” although the Nazi salute was accepted during the 1936 games in Berlin. But Smith and Carlos were scary black men, so their gesture was taken as a racial protest — which in a way it was, but it was for human rights, not a promise that white people would be murdered in their beds.
Today, in the OccupyWallStreet protests, we are again fighting for human rights and equality all over the world, and I think it quite fitting to honor Tommie Smith and John Carlos for their commitment and courage to the cause of human rights.
This is our daily open thread — What’s on your mind?