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Black sprinters raise fists for civil rights
By BRUCE LOWITT
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 14, 1999
Tommie Smith's medal was gold.
John Carlos' was bronze.
Their gloves were black.
Their protest on Oct. 16, 1968, was flint for a spark that ignited a flame far hotter, more intense and longer than the one that burned at Mexico City's Olympic Stadium. To some, they became heroes, symbols of the civil rights movement.
Smith had won the 200-meter sprint in a world-record 19.8 seconds. Carlos had finished third behind Peter Norman of Australia. The two Americans said before the event that they would make a token gesture to protest racial discrimination in the United States.
It was not unexpected. Both attended San Jose State. Activist Harry Edwards, a member of the SJS faculty, had suggested that black athletes boycott the Olympics.
They didn't. Athletes felt they had worked too hard and that competing was more important to themselves and their families than boycotting.
But Smith, 24, and Carlos, 23, two of the more militant members of the U.S. track team, wore black socks during the 200-meter qualifying heats.
That passed unnoticed. But at the awards ceremony, when they stepped onto the medal stand, Smith wore a black scarf and both wore black socks and carried their track shoes. And when the Star-Spangled Banner was played, each bowed his head and raised a black-gloved fist.
"My raised right hand stood for the power in black America," Smith said. "Carlos' raised left hand stood for the unity of black America. Together they formed an arch of unity and power. The black scarf around my neck stood for black pride. The black socks with no shoes stood for black poverty in racist America. The totality of our effort was the regaining of black dignity"
That protest actually went unnoticed by most spectators in the stadium. But the next day, fueled by media exposure, Smith and Carlos became a cause celebre at the Games.
Opinions among teammates were split. In a survey by United Press International of other American Olympians, more seemed to approve of the protest than disapprove.
Decathlete Tom Waddell, a 30-year-old Army physician, said he was "disappointed more Negro athletes backed down." Former gold-medal hammer thrower Harold Connolly, said it was "great for our country. Let a Russian try that and see what happens." And discus gold medalist Al Oerter said: "Perhaps if I felt as strongly about it as they do, I'd do the same thing." But swimmer David Perkowski said it was "not the time and place for them to act as they did."
In what today might be considered the height of hypocrisy, the International Olympic Committee, following an emergency meeting, charged Smith and Carlos with violating the "universally accepted principle" that politics "play no part whatsoever" in the Olympics.
The U.S. Olympic Committee apologized to the IOC and the Mexican Olympic Organizing Committee for what it called the discourtesy exhibited by the two runners and said a repeat incident would result in disciplinary measures.
On Oct. 18, the IOC permanently suspended Smith and Carlos. The USOC tossed them off the team, ordering them out of the Olympic Village immediately and out of Mexico within 48 hours, saying it acted "in the belief that such immature behavior is an isolated incident."
It wasn't isolated. When Lee Evans, Larry James and Ron Freeman swept the 400 meters, they wore black berets. Evans refused to shake hands with an IOC official. American Wyomia Tyus said she and her gold-medal teammates in the 400-meter relay dedicated their victory to Smith and Carlos. And when long-jumper Ralph Boston received his bronze medal, he did so barefoot.
"They are going to have to send me home, too," Boston said, "because I protested on the victory stand." Neither Boston, Evans nor the 400-meter medalists received so much as a reprimand.