Ges­ture that shook the world

When two African Amer­i­can sprint­ers raised their fists in a Black Power salute at the Mex­ico Olympics 50 years ago, the in­ci­dent sent shock­waves around the globe

Daily Express - - INSIDE POLITICS - By Jane War­ren

IT WAS a sig­nal of re­sis­tance and de­fi­ance that is con­sid­ered one of the most overtly po­lit­i­cal ges­tures in the his­tory of sport – and one which con­tin­ues to res­onate to­day, nearly 50 years later.

On Oc­to­ber 16, 1968, at the sum­mer Olympic Games in Mex­ico City, the medals for the men’s 200me­tre sprint were hung around the necks of US ath­letes Tom­mie Smith (gold) and John Car­los (bronze) as the Star-Span­gled Ban­ner be­gan to play.

It was then that the two men solemnly bowed their heads and raised their black-gloved fists. They kept them raised un­til the Amer­i­can na­tional an­them had fin­ished.

Their iconic Black Power salute shocked the world. It was a time of enor­mous racial ten­sion in the United States, and the ges­ture was front-page news.

The two men took their stand just four years af­ter Congress had passed the Civil Rights Act, and in the wake of the as­sas­si­na­tions of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr – within two months of each other – ear­lier that year.

Mil­lions were out­raged. But mil­lions more were thrilled by two high-achiev­ing sports­men ex­press­ing their dis­il­lu­sion­ment with a na­tion that so of­ten fell short of its prom­ises of equal­ity for all.

Yet their mo­ment on the podium was to cost them dear – con­se­quences which they were pre­pared to face with their eyes wide open.

“The first thing I thought was, the shack­les have been bro­ken,” said Car­los, now 73, in a re­cent in­ter­view as he cast his mind back. “I had a moral obli­ga­tion to step up. Moral­ity was a far greater force than the rules and reg­u­la­tions [the Olympic Com­mit­tee] had.”

As he ex­plained in his book The John Car­los Story, in the sec­onds be­tween mount­ing the podium and the an­them start­ing he found him­self re­flect­ing upon the ex­hor­ta­tions of Martin Luther King and Mal­colm X to “be true to your­self even when it hurts”, and think­ing about the hard­ships his own fam­ily had en­dured as black Amer­i­cans.

His fi­nal thought be­fore the band played? “Damn, when this thing is done, it can’t be taken back.”

And in that fi­nal mo­ment of re­flec­tion, he and Smith, now 74, raised their arms.

“You could have heard a frog p*** on cot­ton,” he wrote. “There’s some­thing aw­ful about hear­ing 50,000 peo­ple go silent, like be­ing in the eye of a hur­ri­cane.”

And then the dam burst. As the na­tional an­them played, the crowd be­gan to boo them. Then some peo­ple be­gan to scream the na­tional an­them. Taunts gave way to jeer­ing as mis­siles landed on the arena floor and racist abuse seared the air. “The fire,” writes Car­los, “was all around me… they screamed it to the point where it seemed less a na­tional an­them than a bar­baric call to arms.”

HOW­EVER, although the protest had been some­thing that the two ath­letes had care­fully planned, one as­pect wasn’t. The iconic pho­to­graph of their raised fists re­veals that while Smith’s right hand gave the tra­di­tional Black Power ges­ture, Car­los saluted with his left.

The other man on the podium – the Aus­tralian sil­ver medal­list Peter Nor­man – may not have raised ei­ther hand but it later emerged he had been in­stru­men­tal in or­ches­trat­ing events be­hind the scenes.

For while both the US ath­letes had in­tended to bring a pair of black gloves to the cer­e­mony, Car­los had ac­ci­den­tally left his be­hind in the Olympic Vil­lage.

It was Nor­man who sug­gested that Car­los should wear Smith’s left-handed glove. The re­sult­ing ges­ture did not di­min­ish the in­ten­sity of their ac­tion. As Smith said later: “If I win I am an 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.”

How­ever, the de­ter­mi­na­tion of Smith and Car­los to high­light racial in­equal­ity had a price. The men knew it would be­come, in Car­los’s words, “a mo­ment of truth”. And they knew that by protest­ing they might lose ev­ery­thing.

The pun­ish­ment for de­fy­ing Olympic rules was swift. Apart from be­ing or­dered to leave the sta­dium, they were sus­pended from the US team and the Olympic vil­lage. The LA Times ac­cused them of en­gag­ing in a Nazi-like salute and such was the level of vil­i­fi­ca­tion at home that they even re­ceived death threats.

The fol­low­ing day they were stripped of their medals. At a press con­fer­ence on Oc­to­ber 17, Olympic pres­i­dent Avery Brundage de­plored their “out­ra­geous stance” which, he said, re­pu­di­ated “the basic prin­ci­ples of the Olympic Games”.

BUT the ath­letes re­fused to apol­o­gise be­cause they felt they had noth­ing to apol­o­gise for. “We were just hu­man be­ings who saw a need to bring at­ten­tion to the in­equal­ity in our coun­try,” Smith said years later in a doc­u­men­tary on the Games.

“I don’t like the idea of peo­ple look­ing at it as neg­a­tive. There was noth­ing but a raised fist in the air and a bowed head, ac­knowl­edg­ing the Amer­i­can flag – not sym­bol­is­ing a ha­tred for it.”

Af­ter their track ca­reers, Smith be­came a so­ci­ol­ogy pro­fes­sor and a track and field coach at Santa Mon­ica Col­lege. Car­los worked as a guid­ance coun­sel­lor at Palm Springs High School in Cal­i­for­nia. Both were clearly ed­u­cated and sen­si­tive high-achiev­ers who were pushed to do some­thing ex­tra­or­di­nary in a bid to shake up the sys­tem.

“God told the an­gels that day, ‘Take a step back – I’m gonna have to do this my­self’,” was how Car­los once ex­plained it.

As for Peter Nor­man, the Aus­tralian sil­ver medal­list who stood along­side Smith and Car­los that day, he showed fur­ther sol­i­dar­ity by wear­ing an Olympic Project For Hu­man Rights badge dur­ing the medal cer­e­mony. He was frozen out of fu­ture Games se­lec­tion and air­brushed from Aus­tralian Olympic his­tory un­til re­cently.

“[Peter] said, ‘I’ll stand with you’,” Car­los said later. And when the Aus­tralian ath­lete died in 2006, both Smith and Car­los were pall­bear­ers at his funeral.

In a be­lated recog­ni­tion of Nor­man’s stance that day Aus­tralian au­thor­i­ties this week an­nounced that they were to erect a statue of him out­side a sta­dium in Mel­bourne.

Car­los once said that he ex­pected to see fear in Peter Nor­man’s eyes be­fore the medal cer­e­mony but says he saw no fear. In­stead, he said: “I saw love.”

Pic­tures: GETTY

MORAL STANCE: Smith raises his right hand, Car­los his left in their 1968 protest against US racial in­equal­ity. Aus­tralian sil­ver medal­list Peter Nor­man backed them and in 2006 Smith (left) and Car­los were his pall­bear­ers

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