The 1968 Olympics, held in Mexico City, was certainly famous for the sheer number of records broken in the athletics events – a total of 14 new World Records and 12 new Olympic Records were made, with perhaps the most famous being Bob Beamon breaking the long jump record by 55cm. Other athletic highlights included Jim Hines becoming the first man to ever legally break the 10-second barrier in the men’s 100m, the World Record in the men’s triple jump being broken five times by three athletes and the Fosbury Flop (jumping backwards) being introduced into the high jump. However, all this sporting excellence was eclipsed by a then-controversial moment on the podium in the Olympic Stadium: the Black Power salute.
The date was 16th October. Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos finished 1st and 3rd in the mens’ 200m final, with Australian Peter Norman finishing second – Smith had won with a world record time of 19.83 seconds. As the Star-Spangled Banner played and they turned to face their rising national flags, both Smith and Carlos raised a black-gloved fist and held it there until the anthem had finished. Smith also wore a black scarf – his way of representing Black pride – and Carlos unzipped his top to reveal a chain of beads which he said ‘were for the individuals who were lynched or killed and no-one said a prayer for. It was for those thrown off the side of the boats in the middle passage (a popular route of the slave trade).’ Both also wore black socks instead of shoes, in an effort to represent the effects of black poverty. All three medallists also wore OPHR (Olympic Project for Human Rights) badges.
The Black Power Salute happened in the same year, yet after, the assassination of Martin Luther King and the signing of the US civil rights act. Despite this, it was clear that discrimination was still rife throughout the US especially, if not on paper. The ‘Black Power’ slogan was used to help foster a sense of pride, as well as promoting black values and culture amongst the Black Community in the US throughout the latter years of legalised discrimination, as well as in the immediate years afterward.
Immediate response to the salute was not positive. After being booed by the Mexican crowd, the then-president of the IOC, Avery Brundage, an American, declared their political statement to be unfit for the supposedly apolitical nature of the games, and subsequently ordered the removal of Smith and Carlos from the Olympic Village. After the US Olympic Committee initially refused, the threat to ban the entire US team from the games meant that the two athletes were soon back in the USA. Response from the US press was even more negative than that of the IOC, with Time magazine famously showing on their cover the five Olympic rings with the caption ‘Angrier, Nastier, Uglier’ in place of the Olympic motto ‘Faster, Higher, Stronger’. Both athletes were subject to abuse and even received death threats.
Smith defended himself by saying that the gesture was not a black power salute, but a human rights salute, criticising the continued discrimination of black people in the US and worldwide, saying: ‘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’.
We have still not achieved racial equality, especially regarding African-Americans in the US. However, it is important to remember that progress has been made, and it is staggering to think that statements like this were having to be made less than fifty years ago.
Feature image by Simeon Coath