Carlos, Smith's Olympic demonstration has left a mark still felt 45 years later
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Now that we are a few generations removed from The civil rights movement, events that once seemed so sharp and in your face take on a sepia tone and an unreal quality that makes you feel detached. The edges get smoothed out, and while we may teach the basic facts of a situation, we can overlook the far-reaching effects of said events. Enough time passes that some of these moments have gone from historical vignettes to iconic t-shirts and posters. One such moment is the "Black Power Salute" given by two American athletes during the 1968 Olympics.
On the surface, it's just two guys with their hand in the air. One could almost think they are raising their hands in the triumph of the moment. For the average Olympic level athlete, the years of training and sacrifice and effort are for that moment. You want to be on that podium, preferably at the top. You want to watch your country's flag get raised and hear your country's anthem get played. Tragic moments are legendary at the Olympics, so no athlete, no matter how much they are favored to win, takes for granted that they will stand anywhere on that podium, let alone the top spot.
For sprinters and civil rights icons Tommie Smith and John Carlos, taking their spots on the podium was the easy part. What they were going to do once they got there and the consequences of those actions was the difficult part. It was planned in detail. Their appearance was steeped in symbolism designed to shine a spotlight on the conditions of race relations in America.
Their shoeless feet, shod in black socks, represented the poverty experienced by black people due to racism. Smith's right hand and Carlos' left hand were covered in black leather gloves, one representing black power and the other black unity. Around Smith's neck was a black scarf which symbolized black pride. When the flag was raised and the music began to play, they both closed their eyes, bowed their heads and raised their gloved fists in the air. It was a simple gesture that caused an explosion of controversy and pride.
Nowadays, we see athletes do outrageous things almost on a daily basis. They are not usually acts of civil disobedience to protest injustices. Oftentimes, they are protesting the amount they are being paid or the amount of media attention they receive. We are used to elite athletes being more concerned with racking up victories and sponsorships than with the state of political or social issues. Because Olympic athletes are there to represent their respective countries, there is always the possibility of things getting political.
The Olympics are supposed to be a fair, neutral playing field that gives amateur athletes a chance to put their talents up against the best in the world. It's supposed to be about the purity of competition. Giving it your best. Leaving it all on the field. Pick a cliché. When you have the world's attention and you have something important to say, it's hard not to say it.
The actions of Smith and Carlos literally set off a firestorm. They were given 48 hours to leave the Olympic village and were disavowed by the U.S. Olympic Committee. Critics called their actions a disgrace and said that what they did had no place at the Olympic games.
America was embroiled in protest, however, during 1968. The anti-war protesters had been beaten at the Democratic National Convention. Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy had been recently assassinated. Black folks all across America, from the rural south to the urban north all the way out to the west coast, were taking a stand against the embedded racism and segregation that was festering and warping the American identity. Grand gestures of protest were the only things being heard and recognized.
For those who were being silenced by fear and intimidation, seeing Smith and Carlos stand before the entire world and make such a strong statement gave them hope and courage. It dispelled any myths that blacks in America were happy with their status.
There are so many times when an issue of race is brought to the forefront and the media races to find "the" black leader du jour to make a statement on behalf of the entire black race. The vast majority of the time, that is not the case. This was not one of those times.
Seeing the image of these two elite level athletes putting their reputations and their Olympic and possible professional careers on the line motivated the actions of others. In the 45 years since their act, countless more have been inspired to take a risk in standing up for the causes and issues in which they believe most earnestly. It is a legacy that will continue to mean more than the hardware around their necks.
- Mariel Blake writes a weekly column for The Daily News.