They didn’t #TakeTheKnee. Instead they raised a fist.
The show of unity and defiance reminded some of another silent protest that continues to reverberate almost 50 years later.
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U.S. Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos — who’d won gold and bronze respectively in the 200-meter sprint — raising black-gloved fists during the medal ceremony at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City became one of the most iconic sports images of the 20th century.
The protest had been something the two athletes carefully planned. As Smith and Carlos walked to the podium, they took off their shoes to protest poverty. They wore beads and a scarf to protest lynchings. And when the national anthem was played, they lowered their heads in defiance and raised their fists in a Black Power salute that rocked the world.
Before the anthem started to play, Carlos recalled later that he thought about the symbols that had been chosen for that moment on the world stage. They knew it would become “a moment of truth.” And that by protesting they might lose everything.
“I looked at my feet in my high socks and thought about all the black poverty I’d seen from Harlem to East Texas. I fingered my beads and thought about the pictures I’d seen of the ‘strange fruit’ swinging from the poplar trees of the South,” Carlos wrote in his 2011 book written with Dave Zirin, “The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment That Changed the World.”
He had decided to unzip his Olympic jacket, in defiance of Olympic etiquette, but in support of “all the working-class people — black and white — in Harlem who had to struggle and work with their hands all day.”
He had deliberately covered up the “USA” on his uniform with a black T-shirt to “reflect the shame I felt that my country was traveling at a snail’s pace toward something that should be obvious to all people of good will. Then the anthem started and we raised our fists into the air.”
They had one pair of gloves between them. Smith put a black glove on his right fist; Carlos covered his left fist. Smith raised his right fist; Carlos his left.
“As the anthem began and the crowd saw us raise our fists, the stadium became eerily quiet,” Carlos wrote. “For a few seconds, you honestly could have heard a frog piss on cotton. There’s something awful about hearing fifty thousand people go silent, like being in the eye of a hurricane.”
As the national anthem played the crowd began to boo them. Then some people in the crowd began to scream the national anthem.
“It was like they were saying, ‘Oh, you anti-American sons of bitches. We’re going to shove the s–t down your throat!’ ” Carlos wrote. “They screamed it to the point where it seemed less a national anthem than a barbaric call to arms.”
The punishment for defying Olympic rules was swift. Smith and Carlos were ordered to leave the Olympic Stadium.
But the image of Smith and Carlos raising fists and Australian sprinter Peter Norman — who took silver in the race — would become seared in history as an incendiary act of protest by athletes.
They’d taken a stand at a moment when the country was also embroiled in protests over the Vietnam War and the aftermath of the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. The nation had seen on television Chicago police beating demonstrations at the Democratic National Convention.
When they returned to the United States, Carlos and Smith were suspended from the U.S. track team, and they received death threats.
After their track careers, both 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.
Smith, who worked at Santa Monica College as a sociology professor and head cross-country and track and field coach, said in an HBO documentary that they were just trying to bring attention to injustice in the United States. “I don’t like the idea of people looking at it as negative,” Smith said. “There was nothing but a raised fist in the air and a bowed head, acknowledging the American flag — not symbolizing a hatred for it.”
Carlos, who worked as a guidance counselor at Palm Springs High School in California, told the Guardian newspaper: “I had a moral obligation to step up. Morality was a far greater force than the rules and regulations they had.”
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