The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Two sprinters gave the black-power salute at the Olympics. It took them decades to recover from that gesture.

As the national anthem played at the 1968 Olympics, sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists to the sky amid a chorus of boos. (Video: Victoria Walker/The Washington Post)

They stood on the podium with Olympic medals hanging from their necks, and something much heavier weighing on their shoulders. Each man silently and stoically jabbed a gloved fist in the air, a popular black-power salute. The American track stars stood there without shoes, to symbolize black poverty, and one wore a black scarf, symbolizing black pride. Both kept their heads bowed as their national anthem played, refusing to acknowledge an oppressive society. And by the final notes of the song, everything had changed for John Carlos and Tommie Smith.

The crowd that assembled 50 years ago in Mexico City was there for a medal ceremony, to celebrate the fastest Olympic sprinters from the men’s 200-meter race: the two African Americans and an Australian named Peter Norman. It witnessed something much bigger.

And as word of the demonstration spread across a United States still reeling from racial tensions, it became clear that Smith and Carlos would not be returning home to a hero’s welcome. Instead, they were cast as villains by leaders in the Olympic movement.

“The action of these negroes was an insult to the Mexican hosts and a disgrace to the United States,” Avery Brundage, the International Olympic Committee president, wrote in a letter months later.

A search through contemporaneous records reveals an IOC that was eager to punish Smith and Carlos, a U.S. Olympic Committee that was reluctant to defend them, a White House that declined to host them and an FBI that was monitoring them.

The scrutiny they faced began nearly a full year before the Olympics. In the fall of 1967, a group of amateur black athletes formed the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR), led by San Jose State University sociology professor Harry Edwards. The group threatened to boycott the 1968 Summer Games entirely unless their demands were met; those demands included adding more black coaches, restoring Muhammad Ali’s heavyweight title, disinviting South Africa and Rhodesia from the Olympics, and removing Brundage from power.

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Brundage was a powerful and controversial figure in the Olympic world. A former track and field athlete who grew up in Chicago, he was accused of racism and anti-Semitism by many, criticized for supporting the 1936 Olympics in Germany and later denounced for not taking a harder line against Olympic committees in South Africa and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).

A half-century before National Football League players began taking a knee during the national anthem, talk of a boycott dominated headlines and chatter at every track and field event in 1967 and ’68. The UCLA star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then known as Lew Alcindor, refused to try out for the U.S. basketball team, and because many of the top American sprinters were black, they thought they had leverage.

The threats had become a major source of concern in and out of the Olympic world. In researching his 1980 autobiography “The Struggle That Must Be,” Edwards obtained more than 2,000 pages of documents via the Freedom of Information Act from the FBI, CIA and U.S. Military Intelligence that showed that law enforcement was investigating the group well before anyone set foot in Mexico. Edwards was under surveillance, and the FBI, under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover, had informants or undercover agents in his classrooms, tracking his movements and attending his speeches.

One dispatch from the FBI director to the San Francisco field office is dated March 7, 1968, and instructs the special agent in charge to “promptly review the information in your files concerning Edwards and submit a recommendation to include him on the Rabble Rouser Index if justified.” A document barely two weeks later indeed shows that Edwards was a “new subject” on the Rabble Rouser index, a federal database used by Hoover’s agency to track individuals considered to be a political or national security threat.

Three months before the Summer Games, the OPHR effort ran out of steam, and some athletes began discussing individual forms of protest in Mexico City: refusal to stand on the medal podium, a black-power salute, intentionally finishing in last place to symbolize the place many blacks felt they occupied in American society, or perhaps sitting out events after the Opening Ceremonies to show how blacks were excluded.

Olympic officials were eager to stay on top of the plans. Doug Roby, the USOC president at the time, wrote a letter to Brundage on Aug. 8, 1968, and acknowledged the swirling issues and continued threats of a boycott. “I wish to assure you that we are very much concerned . . . and we intend to have every athlete thoroughly understand that we will countenance no nonsense and that anyone that participates or that attempts to participate in any demonstration as referred to, will be immediately suspended as a member of our team and returned to his home at the earliest possible date.”

'Something had to be done'

On Oct. 16, Smith took first in the 200 meters, setting a world record, and Carlos was third. During the medal ceremony, a murmur went through the Mexico City crowd when both men made their gesture.

Olympic and U.S. government officials immediately sprang into action, frantically discussing the consequences for the two sprinters and the larger ramifications for the country.

A dispatch from the U.S. Embassy in Mexico to Secretary of State Dean Rusk on Oct. 19, 1968, read, in part: “USOC executive committee met and decided against severe action such as suspension but agreed to issue warning to all U.S. athletes against further demonstrations.” It went on to say that the “IOC replied that suspension was minimum acceptable punishment.”

“IOC reasoned that USOC not controlling its athletes and that racial dissension might spread to other delegations if USOC refused to suspend Smith and Carlos,” it read.

The IOC met twice Oct. 17, once in the morning and again at 10 p.m., according to the IOC minutes kept on file at the group’s headquarters in Switzerland.

“In [the USOC’S] opinion it was more an internal social affair than an international political affair,” the IOC minutes read. The IOC, however, “came to the conclusion that . . . something had to be done as this incident could not be ignored.”

The IOC executive committee ended its meeting about 1 a.m. Oct. 18, and the USOC executive committee then met, reluctantly agreeing to kick Smith and Carlos out of the Olympic Games.

“President Roby reconvened his Board and in plain English relayed the edict-vote to send Smith and Carlos packing or the USA would be eliminated,” Robert Paul Jr., the USOC’s communications director at the time, later wrote. “It was the only time I had ever heard President Roby raise his voice.”

Roby informed Carlos and Smith that they would have to leave, and the USOC prepared a press statement the next morning expressing its “profound regrets to the International Olympic Committee, to the Mexican Organizing Committee and to the people of Mexico for the discourtesy displayed by two members of its team.”

A White House dilemma

As Carlos and Smith prepared to leave Mexico, they were returning to a country that was sharply divided over the protest it had just witnessed.

A Washington public relations consultant named Robert McElwaine wrote the White House on Oct. 21, saying: “As a result of the action that was forced upon the U.S. Olympic Committee, a new wedge is being driven between black and white people in America. The President now has an opportunity to demonstrate to the world in general, and to the black people in particular, that the United States, while not condoning the immature act of these athletes, does not accept the extreme penalty levied by the Olympic Committee.”

McElwaine, who was white, suggested that President Lyndon B. Johnson invite all Olympic medal winners, including Smith and Carlos, to the White House to personally congratulate them. This was eight years before Olympians began to regularly visit the White House.

Johnson’s staff wasn’t sure what to do with the suggestion. Juanita Roberts, Johnson’s secretary, shared the proposal with White House staffers. Harry McPherson Jr., special counsel to the president, advised: “Personally, I’d like to see this done. I don’t know if Smith and Carlos would come with everybody else, but it does strike me as a fine way to handle this problem.”

Johnson asked James R. Jones, special assistant to the president, to solicit more opinions. White House aides George Reedy and Joseph Califano “believe the President would have little to gain and there is the potential for much embarrassment,” according to a White House memo.

In the end, Jones responded to Mc­Elwaine: “The President’s schedule is very heavy now and in the days immediately ahead. We do appreciate your suggestion, but regret that we will not be able to follow through on it.”

Olympic officials, meanwhile, had no regrets over their decision to ban Carlos and Smith from the Games. Despite the reservations expressed in Mexico, in letters after the Summer Games, Roby, the USOC chief, said at various times that feedback he received ran 8 to 1, 9 to 1 or 10 to 1 in support of the USOC’s response, and he defended the decision in letters.

“The Olympic Games is not a place for demonstrations of any type,” he wrote. “If we had let the incident regarding Tommie Smith and John Carlos pass without some sort of action being taken, we might have had some demonstrations of the Czechs against the Soviets, Israel against the Arab countries, South Korea against North Korea, or Cuba against the United States, to mention but a few, and our ceremonies would have been a farce.”

Brundage, too, was resolute in his decision. In letters after the Olympics, he wrote: “Good manners and sportsmanship are more important than athletic ability. We do not intend to permit the Olympic Games to be used for demonstrations of any kind.” And in another: “If you saw the picture of the two United States Negro athletes on the victory stand, I think you will agree that it was a disgrace to the United States.”

In notes for an autobiography, he wrote that the athletes shared a “warped mentality” and had “little appreciation for Olympic principles and the dignity of the Games.”

The two athletes, meanwhile, returned home to far more scrutiny than acclaim. They were largely shunned in Olympic and track communities. Running offered little financial stability 50 years ago, so they both gave professional football a shot. Smith appeared in two games in three NFL seasons, and Carlos had an NFL tryout and lasted just one year in the Canadian Football League.

The 1970s brought depression, personal troubles and financial woes for Carlos: “This was no accident. It was part of the government taking back what we had won,” he wrote. “When the government decided it was going to go after figures who were against the establishment, they went out to get them. They had a machinery. We had no machinery.”

Both athletes said they remained under FBI surveillance for years.

“They were following me every day, every which way,” Carlos wrote in “The John Carlos Story,” his 2011 autobiography. “But the thing that had me torn up inside was: why? What did I do to deserve them following me everywhere? The only conclusion I could draw was that it was to punish me, to beat me down and to drive me to some point of insanity.”

Around 1973, five years after the Olympics, there was still an FBI agent stationed outside his home.

“I was so lonely and so lost, I invited him inside to have a hot cup,” Carlos later wrote. “He said the rules of surveillance dictated that he was not permitted to actually enter my house and have coffee with me. I asked if it was against regulations for me to bring two hot cups out to the car, and he paused and said no.” So Carlos brought the coffee.

Carlos and Smith both bounced between jobs, with each eventually settling comfortably into education and coaching. For years, neither was celebrated as any sort of sports hero.

“Even though the image was iconic, there was no icon status and no monetary benefit,” said Dave Zirin, the sports columnist for the Nation who co-wrote Carlos’s autobiography. “If anything, they felt pushed out. It was very difficult because there wasn’t really any media they felt like they could talk to, and over a 10-year period or so, there was poverty; there was no money.”

Late recognition

Carlos kept his bronze medal in the garage for years and jokes that when he finally brought it out, it was only to be used to break ice.

“The medal doesn’t have no value to me. It’s just a trinket,” he had once explained. “The energy, the memories, that’s far more important than any award. I could lose that medal, but I’m never going to forget the memories I have.”

For nearly four decades, they felt like outsiders. It wasn’t until a new generation began to hear their story and celebrate their actions that either began to feel accepted. HBO aired a documentary in 1999, and ESPN gave the pair its Arthur Ashe Courage Award in 2008 . Since then, both men have been bestowed numerous honors, including at the Free Expression Awards this spring in Washington.

“I’m not here to accept an award for myself,” Carlos, now 72, one year younger than Smith, said at the ceremony. “I don’t even like awards like I don’t like applause. But my kids tell me and my wife tells me, ‘You have to accept it, Daddy, because we have to feel good to see you go up there.’ . . . But I didn’t do them for awards.”

“I shouldn’t have to go out there and stick my fist in the sky,” he continued. “I didn’t ask to be no martyr in society. . . . But somebody got to take the forward step.”

In 2016, the two made their White House visit, along with that year’s U.S. Summer Olympics team, meeting President Barack Obama .

“I know it makes him feel more and more validated,” Zirin said of Carlos, “that they planted something that’s actually taken root instead of something that only messed up so many years of their lives.”

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