This article was originally posted at http://moti-athletics-histo.blogspot.com2012/02/black-stand-for-civil-rights-at-mexico.html
Peter Norman, Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the Mexico Olympic Games podium
Talking about athletic performances, Mexico 1968 Olympic Games rank among the very best in history. The world record was broken in no less than 15 specialties, including up to five times by three different athletes at the triple Jump. Interestingly, all but two of those records were set at sprint and horizontal jump events, helped by the altitude and ideal atmospheric conditions. The most remembered moment of the Games was the superhuman flight of Bob Beamon, but also Jim Hines ran for the first time ever under 10sec and Lee Evans and Larry James under 44sec. Evans’ record stood for 20 years and the one recorded by him and his mates of the male 4×400 relay even longer than Beamon’s 8.90. Elsewhere, Al Oerter accomplished his fourth consecutive title at the discus, Dick Fosbury changed the high jump event forever with the introduction of his revolutionary style and Kenya made a stunning breakthrough at the Olympics, winning three gold medals in distance running. Not bad for a single week but the Games of the XIX Olympiad were also remarkable for some controversial gestures at the medal podium by some African American athletes. An Olympic performer is a human being first and this is what Tommie Smith and John Carlos tried to show up with their memorable stand for civil rights at the 200m medal ceremony.
1968 had been arguably the saddest year in the 20th Century, outside of the World Wars, and a pessimistic one talking about mankind hopes for a better future. Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr Luther King and Robert Kennedy had been assassinated as Malcolm X and President John Kennedy were sooner in the decade. The offensive and My Lai civil massacre had increased domestic opposition to the US involvement in the Vietnam War, while Soviet Union tanks had suffocated Czechoslovakia’s uprising in the spring. Inside the black continent, South Africa and Rhodesia governments continued with their strong racist policies and apartheid. On the other hand disgruntled students led to the largest general strike ever in Paris. Also in Mexico City, just 10 days before the Olympics, a student demonstration had been violently reprimanded by the army, causing hundred of deaths. IOC president Avery Brundage did not see the necessity to cancel the Games but in the United States black athletes had been talking openly for months about boycott.
San Jose State University in California was the hot centre of that polemical debate. In that campus were studying some of the foremost track and field sprinters of the country: Tommie Smith, Lee Evans, Ronnie Ray Smith, John Carlos… under probably the best speed coach of the time, Lloyd “Bud” Winter, described by his charges as a a humanitarian in both his training methods and general behaviour. Both Smith and Evans parents had been sharecroppers in Texas and Louisiana respectively and migrated to California trying to escape segregation and poverty. Tommie claimed both future Olympic champions had already met as children, cutting grapes in the fields from dawn to sunset, which was precisely the way they became such tough runners. (1) John Carlos came from different background: he was from Cuban origin and had been a kid struggling in Harlem. Then he moved toEast Texas State University but disappointed with the racist atmosphere left after his freshman year, to switch to California. Passionate and outgoing, the eternal spokesperson, John Carlos temperament fitted with Malcolm X, whom he had met in New York, while Tommie Smith, rather reserved, was more a Dr King follower. (2) On the other hand, Evans stated African athletes, when he was in London for a competition, had made him become aware of the black struggle in racist South Africa. These politico-social concerns of the trio would be canalised by a young sociology teacher called Harry Edwards, a big influence in their future commitment.
John Carlos and Tommie Smith take a break in pre-Olympic days in San Jose
Photo: Jeff Kroot
Edwards founded the OPHR (Olympic Project for Human Rights), an association created in a rather spontaneous way, when San Jose black students gathered around him to complain about such things as their troubles to find accommodation near campus, because of the colour of their skin. (1) Seemingly the only black men admitted in that college were the ones with sportive skills and even then efforts were not done to supply them with the necessary conditions for their normal integration into the student community. A scholarship did not mean much and there were the times of amateurism so black athletes needed to earn some money through some small jobs. Thus Tommie Smith, who was the record holder at 11 different events, had to wash cars in his spare time. Black athletes were used to win gold medals for the nation at the Olympic Games and, after that ephemeral moment of glory, Cinderella got back home to keep cleaning floors and be treated like scum again. "For years we have carried the United States on our backs with our victories, and race relations are now worse than ever. It is time for the black people to stand up as men and women and refuse to be utilised as performing animals for a little extra dog food." said Harry Edwards to the New York Times. “We are not a show horse doing a performance, so if we do a good job we get paid some peanuts,” stated John Carlos at Mexico Olympics press conference. (3)
The OHPR articulated this kind of issues, as one of the very first student black associations around the civil rights plight. They communicated to the authorities their decision of boycotting the Games unless they accomplished 10 demands, among them to keep the ban to South Africa and Rhodesia for the Olympic Games, to remove IOC president Avery Brundage, to engage more black coaches and officials (in Mexico Olympic Games there was only one black assistant coach and one member inside the IOC, Jesse Owens) and to reinstate Muhammad Ali. The boxer had been suspended and stripped of his world title after his refusal to go to Vietnam. (1) Ali was punished because he was considered a threat: he was a symbol for all the black community for his sportive prowess, his independence, his affinity with Malcolm X and his angry words against the establishment. “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? I ain’t got no quarrel with the Vietcong. No Vietcong ever called me Nigger. No, I am not going 10.000 miles to help murder, kill, and burn other people to simply help continue the domination of white slavemasters over dark people the world over. This is the day and age when such evil injustice must come to an end.” (4) Martin Luther King was one of the personalities that manifested his support to the OPHR boycott. He had an interview with John Carlos ten days before his death.
Nevertheless, only 1/3 of the Black American athletes were for the boycott. Some believed an Olympic victory would allow them to escape thereafter racism. Eventually it was decided to compete but the athletes talked about making a stand for human rights in case they reached the podium. Death threat letters abounded and some of the runners like Tommie Smith expected from one moment to another to be shot on the track. (2) There was an unspeakable atmosphere inside US team and at the same time the will to prove something to the world: “They transformed fear, loss and rage into performance.” (5) Jim Hines was the first of the African American athletes to win a gold medal. On the podium he respected the protocol except for one small detail: he refused to shake Avery Brundage’s hand as the IOC president awarded him the medal. Brundage had been quoted in previous weeks saying black athletes had to be lucky of being allowed in America and on the Olympic team. In the beginning, the idea of carrying black gloves to the medal presentation ceremony was precisely related to the moment they had to face the IOC president: “Let us get some black gloves and stick them in our pants and before Avery Brundage shakes our hand, we will put the black glove on and wait until he has a heart attack.” (1) Anyway, after his experience with Hines, Brundage let other dignitaries do the medal-awarding job. A rather bemused Lord Burghley, the Marquis of Essex, was the close witness of the famous and infamous Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ civil rights statement, when they bowed their heads and thrust their black-gloved fists in the air as the Star-Spangled Banner anthem started.
Ron Freeman, Lee Evans and Larry James at the 400m Olympic podium in Mexico
In The US 200 meter medallists’ protest demonstration there was a sort of transgressive elements, each one carrying is own symbologie. (6) Tommie Smith’s glove represented power and John Carlo’s unity, five fingers which can remove together a solid rock and can also lift a mountain if there is a whole nation united on the same aim. (7) Tommie wore a black scarf which meant black pride, while John had a necklace with beads to recall every individual lynched, killed without a prayer or thrown off the boats in the journey to slavery. (8) Carlos uniform was also unzipped in homage to blue collar workers, to the underdogs. Finally, both runners were carrying OPHR badges and came to the ceremony barefooted, showing up black socks. That was to remember all the misery surrounding black lives. “We have kids that do not have shoes even today. They can send a space ship to the moon, or send a probe to Mars, yet they cannot give shoes? They cannot give health care? I am just not naive enough to accept that.” (8) Often Carlos and Smith’s salute has seen as a black power stand but the latter said it was more accurate to describe it as a demonstration asking for civil rights and not only black people ones. Also women, who fought actively for their rights in the next decade, could have perfectly been involved. For him it was not a violent gesture of hate as some stated but of frustration, because he loved his country and wanted it to do better. (2) John Carlos has often been quoted too as beginning his protest in the actual race, where he said he did not give his best and allow Smith to win just to let down white expectations from his country on his "show horse" performance.
The other man on the podium, white Australian Peter Norman, agreed to participate in the stand. He asked for an OPHR badge, which he borrowed from Olympic white American rower, Paul Hoffman. Norman also suggested the idea of splitting Tommie Smith’s gloves, after Carlos had left behind his in his room. The silver medalist, educated in the principles of the Salvation Army disliked the white-only politics back in his own country, where Aborigines were not allowed to vote in federal elections until 1962 and were not counted in the national census until 1967. http://moti-athletics-400-w.blogspot.com/2012/01/cathy-freeman.html He was also aware of the situation of the black community in the country of freedom. "I could not see why a black man was not allowed to drink out of the same water fountain or sit in the same bus or go to the same schools as a white guy. That was just social injustice that I could not do anything about from where I was, but I certainly abhorred it." (9) Normanalludes to the famous episode of activist Rosa Parks who refused to give up her seat on a public bus to make room for a white passenger in 1955, as it was stipulated in the segregated law; an incident which brought to the Montgomery-bus boycott action led by Luther King. Also to James Meredith, who won an appeal at the US Supreme Court in 1962 and thus was the first black citizen admitted to Mississippi University, which he had to reach escorted by the army and 500 Marshalls. White students and anti-desegregation supporters tried to avoid his enrolment in a violent riot, where about 200 members of the Security Forces finished up injured or wounded. In his stage in University, Meredith was often harassed and marginalised by other students but left school with a degree in political science.
Larry Questad, Tommie Smith and John Carlos in Lake Tahoe, venue of the 1968 Olympic trials
The US press did not seem to understand the true meaning of Smith, Carlos and Norman’s stand. Or maybe it was too embarrassed or with little social sensibility. Time magazine changed the Olympic motto “citius, altius, fortius” to “angrier, nastier, uglier,” describing what happened in Mexicoas "a public display of petulance that sparked one of the most unpleasant controversies in Olympic history.” (3) Associated Press talked about “a bizarre demonstration.” One of few voices of support from white America came from Robert Clark, the enlightened president of San Jose State, who praised them as "honourable young men dedicated to the cause of justice for the Black people in our society". (3) Avery Brundage did not like it much either. The IOC criticised Smith and Carlos for "advertising their domestic political views", which amounted to "a deliberate and violent breach of the fundamental principles of the Olympic spirit". (3) Brundage was against mixing politics and Olympic Games and even tried more than once to ban medal tables and national anthems at the medal ceremonies. Yet it was not arguably the true reason of his anger. The US committee did not intend to take any special measure against the athletes but, after the IOC threatened with expelling the whole team from the Olympics, made an embarrassing public apology and gave Smith and Carlos 48 hours to pack their bags and leave the Olympic village.
Jesse Owens was send by the IOC to try to convince the other US black athletes to “behave” during their next visits to the podium but Lee Evans and company shouted him out of the room saying Owens, living now the life of the Avery Brundage’s, had forgotten he had once suffered the same discrimination than them. "You know, wearing those long black socks is going to cut off the circulation in your legs." (1) Lee Evans wanted to leave too but his San Jose State mates came to get him run his race. At the 400m, Evans, Larry James and Ron Freeman swept the whole podium. They walked to the victory stand, aware of death threats against them. "We decided we would smile a lot and show our warmth," said Evans. "It is harder to shoot a guy who is smiling." (10) The trio was wearing black berets, showing their sympathy to the Black Panthers Party, uncovering their heads as the national anthem was heard in the stadium. They wore that long black socks as also did long jumpers Bob Beamon and Ralph Boston. The latter came barefooted to receive his medal as Smith and Carlos had done before. Finally the girls who broke the world record a the 4x100m relay, Margaret Bailes, Barbara Ferrell, Mildrette Netter and Wyomia Tyus, dedicated publicly their victory to Tommie and John. None of them was punished. Besides the US African American athletes, Olympic champion in gymnastics Vera ?áslavská of Czechoslovakia protested against the invasion of her country, quietly turning her head down and away during the playing of the Soviet national anthem. Back home she was banned from competition and international travel for many years.
Avery Brundage had all that it takes to be named for the 20th century Hall of Shame. For the 1936 Olympiad he was the president of the United States Olympic Committee. Some personalities proposed to boycott the Berlin Games, because Jews were excluded in sport. Brundage went to Germany for an official investigation and concluded there was not any discrimination against Jews in the country. Tommie Smith and John Carlos “politic” demonstration had been unbearable but he never complained about Nazis salutes inside the Olympic stadium and the uncovered use of the Games by Hitler to promote his ideological belief of the Aryan race supremacy. Brundage was strongly against the mixing of politics and sport but he replaced in the last moment the only two Jews in the American team scheduled to compete. He never hid his sympathies for the Nazis and was removed for this reason from the American Olympic Committee in 1941. However he was not from the IOC and in 1951 was named its president, a post he would sadly keep for 20 years. Brundage was also against the presence of women at the Olympics beyond the ceremonial and decorative role. “I am fed up to the ears with women as track and field competitors… her charms sink to something less than zero. As swimmers and divers, girls are [as] beautiful and adroit as they are ineffective and unpleasing on the track," he was quoted in 1936. (11) Besides a white race supremacist, he tried all his best to avoid the ban against two countries with such strong racist policies as South Africa and Rhodesia. When terrorists killed 11 Israeli athletes at the Olympic village in Munich 1972, he did not see again any reason to stop the Games, on the other hand famously equating the massacre with the “politic blackmail” to ban Rhodesia as attacks on Olympic integrity. (11) Of course Brundage was a fervent stand bearer of Olympic amateurism; a hypocritical conception in which athletes could not make a living of their sportive talent, while others were cashing the money they generated. As colophon, his private life was so private, so an extramarital affair did not harm his reputation he never recognised his only two sons. Sport and especially soccer has proved an ideal substitute for religion as opium populi. It has been used for many years to divert crowd’s anger and frustration to less dangerous scenarios and also to awake patriotism. Meanwhile, Brundage tried to keep for two long decades an exacerbated puristic conception of the Olympics, a big hypocrisy, dissociated from reality and at the same time serving doubtful interests. Actually, one of the few times athletes were sanctioned for “breaking the Olympic spirit” took place when Tommie Smith and John Carlos made a demonstration for human rights. I would rather listen to Carlos’ words. “Those people should put all their millions of dollars together and make a factory that builds athlete-robots. Athletes are human beings. We have feelings too. How can you ask someone to live in the world, to exist in the world and not have something to say about injustice?” (8)
Tommie Smith and John Carlos carry the coffee of old-fellow Olympian Peter Norman
Reality was quite tough for the three 200m Olympic medallists as they came back from Mexico. Tommie Smith’s agent broke their contract and he was sacked from his job washing cars and nobody dared to offer him any other. “Once we got back we were ostracised, even by our own. Folks were scared, man. No jobs. We could not find work. People even told us, ‘We cannot get close to you guys because we have our own jobs to protect.’ “ (3) Within two years his mother had passed away, his marriage was over and he was unemployed and broke. His mother died of a heart attack after receiving a mail with manure and dead rats in it. His brother in high school was kicked off the football team and his brother in Oregon had his scholarship taken away. John Carlos experienced a similar dramatic return home. “I came back ‘John Carlos the neighbourhood bum’. I would soon have no money and I had to beg, borrow, steal and gamble to pay my rent. I remember chopping the furniture up for firewood and my wife looking at me as if I was crazy. But our heating was electric and I could not pay my electricity bill, so we had to take the kids to sleep by the fireplace." His wife left him, and in 1977 she took her own life. "I lost my first wife in this thing. But I will never be bitter toward anyone. Not for the criticisms or the death threats or anything. If I am bitter, they win.”(3) Peter Norman had just a little reprimand back in Australia and competed at the Commonwealth Games in 1970 but guess why he was not named for Munich Olympic Games, in spite of having the 5th mark in the seasonal lists. After that he retired from track and field. Norman’s marriage also failed, he drank heavily, his health deteriorated and also became a painkillers addict at the hospital. (12) In 2000 every past Olympian Australian legend was invited for a lap of honour on occasion of Sidney Olympic Games. Norman was not, no matter he is still the 200m national record holder with his 20.07 clocking from Mexico. However he was invited by US officials to join them in the stadium. Edwin Moses greeted the Australian at the door and Michael Johnson hugged him saying “you are my hero.”
Tommie Smith started to see the light as he moved to Ohio and someone eventually took the risk of employing him as a track and field coach at Oberlin College, where he became a sociology teacher too. Later he would be working in Santa Monica. John Carlos became also an athletic coach at Palm Springs High School and a guidance counsellor, serving mostly a Hispanic community. His public rehabilitation and Tommie’s began some years before as he was hired by the president of the organising committee of the 1984 Los Angeles Games, Peter Ueberroth, as a special consultant on minority affairs. Who cared anymore about a stand at the Olympics when politics had brought to three consecutive massive boycotts? Mentalities were also changing. In 2004 a statue was erected in Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ alma mater San Jose State University to honour them. A young white student called Erik Grotz took the first steps on this initiative and also participated Alfonso de Alba, an immigrant who was born in Mexico City the 26th October 1968, the day of the famous civil rights stand. The same year Matt Norman, Peter nephew, directed a documentary called “Salute”, which for the first time brought the three medallists in a room to tell their story of that day in Mexico. In the last years, both Smith (2) and Carlos (13) have also published their autobiography. In 2008 both American athletes were given the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage. Two years before, Peter Norman, who remained a lifelong friend and was called by John Carlos “my brother”, died from a heart attack. His two companions at Mexico Olympics podium travelled to Australia to be pallbearers at his funeral. Also Lee Evans, who for more than 20 years rediscovered his roots helping Nigerian sprinters to make the way to the elite, is currently battling a brain tumour.
Tommie Smith and John Carlos consider themselves not as heroes but just as survivors and still keep the fire of their younger years and as a prove the latter was seen joining Occupy Wall Street, giving advice to the youth. They have a critical point of view about nowadays issues and the new generation. Both athletes made a sacrifice to fight for a better future for their children and they can be only half happy. Carlos says the black mistreatment in the South continues but now it has been “cosmetically disguised”. An African American has become the US president and former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamaal has been at last removed from the death row, but capital punishment still stands in the country of freedom for many others. Black men incarceration has grown to up to 5 times in comparison to 20 years ago, making the 39% of the total of people in jail. Also 27% of the black population is considered to be living in poverty, nearly double the overall US rate. (13) The US keep invading foreign countries and applying the law of Talion instead of forgiveness. Winds of xenophobia are blowing strongly all over the world and the global economic crisis allows governments to set a dictatorship of the capital, impinging on the helpless citizen constitutional rights. Smith and Carlos also complain about the lack of social conscience in the new generation of sportspeople, who do clinics at Beverly Hills or Malibu, instead of in the hood they were born. (7) http://moti-athletics-100-w.blogspot.com/2012/02/one-thousand-reasons.html Delegates from poor countries have joined the formerly elitist IOC and IAAF and these organisations have invested in developing the practise of sport in the third world as a vehicle of cultural and social progress. http://moti-athletics-400h-w.blogspot.com/2012/01/nawal-el-moutawakel.html Anyway, a country as Saudi Arabia has not been banned yet from the Olympic Games, in spite of strongly discriminating females in the practise of sport inside the country and it is not enough if they send a random girl to London to run the 100m. (14) We need new men and women with Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s unbreakable spirit to keep the struggle on.
Speed City legends back in 1968, including Tommie Smith, John Carlos and Lee Evans
Photographer: Jeff Kroot