Fifty years ago today, two black American athletes, Tommie Smith and Juan Carlos, raised black-gloved fists on the medal stand at the 1968 Mexico City Summer Olympic Games. They had taken gold and bronze respectively in the 200 meters and wished to make a statement against racial inequality in South Africa, Rhodesia and the United States. A raised black gloved fist was a symbol for the Black Power movement in the US. According to the story they told, they shared the one pair of gloves they had between them, one raising his right hand and the other the left.
Both men were American track competitors, each with significant records in the event from prior meets. They were also members of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, a recognized but ineffecual organization permitted by the Olympic Committee. The silver medalist, Peter Norman from Australia, also wore the insignia of the organization and supported their protest.
Avery Brundage, the American head of the IOC, dismissed Smith and Carlos from the American team, declaring their actions political and not in the spirit of the Games. (Brundage had approved the Nazi salute at the 1938 games.) The careers of Smith, Carlos and even Norman suffered for their stands, but their connection and committment remained firm. Smith and Carlos were pallbearers at Norman’s funeral in 2006. In 2008, Smith was awarded the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage by ESPN. Carlos went on to work for the host committee of the 1084 Los Angeles Games.
In subsequent years, other arguably more offensive acts – burning draft cards and even burning the flag – were ruled protected speech by the courts, though it may be worth noting that both were largely acts by white Americans. And yet, in 2018 a quality black NFL quarterback who chose to kneel during the National Anthem cannot find a team that will employ him. Colin Kaepernick and others like him are ostrasized for protesting racial injustices that remain with us today.
I find it hard to know what to say. In 1968, I thought that my generation of Americans would be different. We would offer opportunity to all and would accept, if not honor, the right to protest. I know that many do, but the roar of disapproval from those I hoped would be wiser is as loud as I recall from my youth. What’s more, not only the same examples of police and public brutality continue, but the disparity between those who have wealth and those that live day-to-day has grown enormously.
We may never cure racial wrongs, but until then, we must never silence the last acts of protest.