This week in history: Tommie Smith, John Carlos and the 1968 Olympics Black Power Salute
In this Oct. 16, 1968, file photo, Australian silver medalist Peter Norman, left, stands on the podium as Americans Tommie Smith, center, and John Carlos raise their gloved fists in a human rights protest. | AP

Standing atop the medal podium during the 1968 Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City, Olympic sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos turned to face the American flag, bowed their heads and raised black-gloved fists as the national anthem played. The date was October 16, 1968, 50 years ago.

Millions of their fellow Americans were outraged at such a “disrespectful” political display, while millions upon millions of viewers around the world delighted in seeing two Black men protesting racism and injustice unafraid.

The protest took place only months after the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and as mobilization against the Vietnam War escalated.

Leading up to the Olympics, Smith and Carlos helped organize the Olympic Project for Human Rights, a group that reflected their black pride and social consciousness. The group saw the Olympic Games as an opportunity to agitate for better treatment of black athletes and black people around the world.

“We had to be seen because we couldn’t be heard,” Smith said.

After the medal ceremony, Smith and Carlos were rushed from the stadium, suspended by the U.S. team, and kicked out of the Olympic Village for turning their medal ceremony into a political statement.

The International Olympic Committee deemed their actions as “a deliberate and violent breach of the fundamental principles of the Olympic spirit.”

International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Avery Brundage deemed it to be a domestic political statement unfit for the apolitical, international forum the Olympic Games were intended to be. Never mind that Brundage made no objections against the Nazi salute during the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin explaining the Nazi salute was a national salute at the time, and was acceptable in a competition of nations, while Smith and Carlos’s salute was not of a nation and therefore unacceptable—familiar excuses we still hear today.

Back in the States, Smith and Carlos were belittled, criticized, and ostracized after their demonstration—similar to Colin Kaepernick today—while their families received death threats. All were subject to abuse, and sadly in 1977 Carlos’s ex-wife committed suicide—a tragedy he holds himself responsible for. “But the one regret I do have is that I didn’t think enough about safeguarding my family… I didn’t think people would strike out at my wife and kids. I thought that they would just come after me,” said Carlos.

“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 1968 Mexico City games produced for HBO. “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 symbolizing a hatred for it.”

Smith and Carlos played in the NFL, but their time on the field was short-lived. Smith played three seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals, according to the Track and Field Hall of Fame. Carlos played one year with the Philadelphia Eagles and one year in the Canadian Football League.

In 1982, Carlos was employed by the Organizing Committee for the Olympics in Los Angeles to promote the games and act as liaison with the city’s black community. In 1985, he became a track and field coach at Palm Springs High School.

Smith became an assistant professor of physical education at Oberlin College and in 1995 he helped coach the U.S. team at the World Indoor Championships at Barcelona. In 1999 he was awarded the California Black Sportsman of the Millennium Award. He is now a public speaker, and until recently was a faculty member at Santa Monica College.

Smith and Carlos received an Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the 2008 ESPY Awards honoring their action.

Carlos and Smith are still in touch today—and have been publicly supportive of other protesting athletes, including the NFL’s Colin Kaepernick. “What I did was right 48 years ago, and 48 years later it has proven to be right,” Carlos told The Telegraph in 2016. “In 1968 we were on a program for humanity—we are still on the same program today.”

After 50 years, this is still a story needing to be remembered—“a story of encouragement, of knowledge of history,” according to Carlos, “just plain a story that needs to be told to young and old individuals in the society in which we live. A story of what could happen to anyone who stands up for justice and equality in our society.”


Special to People’s World
Special to People’s World

People’s World is a voice for progressive change and socialism in the United States. It provides news and analysis of, by, and for the labor and democratic movements to our readers across the country and around the world. People’s World traces its lineage to the Daily Worker newspaper, founded by communists, socialists, union members, and other activists in Chicago in 1924.