Tommie Smith and John Carlos were two Black American sprinters at the 1968 Mexico City Games. As teammates on the track team at San Jose State University, the men were both informed of the boycott led by Harry Edwards, creator of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, and a young sociologist among Smith and Carlos. The intention of the boycott was to remind the citizens of America that the injustices faced by Black people had not been amended, and the actions America had taken civil rights thus far were not sufficient enough to change this. While the all-out boycott itself never formally took place, its efforts were recognized widely by civil right’s leaders and many athletes.
Inspired by the efforts of Harry Edwards, and encrusted with the knowledge of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Smith and Carlos planned a non-violent protest after the completion of the race. Smith was awarded the gold medal for the men’s 200 meter race, for which Carlos was awarded the bronze medal. The two athletes both approached the podium without shoes, but with black socks, to symbolize black poverty in America. Smith’s black scarf was an emblem of Black pride. Carlos’ tracksuit top was unzipped to represent all blue collar workers in America, with a beaded necklace in remembrance of “for those individuals that were lynched, or killed and that no-one said a prayer for, that were hung and tarred. It was for those thrown off the side of the boats in the middle passage,” (from Black Power, Dean Lucas.)
Demonstration of Black excellence. These men went farther than to represent America but also to shed light upon the “other” America. This was their pledge of allegiance to Black America. They made sure to classify themselves as Black athletes, Black Olympians; Black champions. They took the risk, and the response to their actions resulted in a ban on both men from the Olympic Village, and a suspension from their national team. Yet, they are rewarded with commemoration, admiration, and zeal by Black athletes and Black students everywhere who note their willingness to use their platform; to use their art as a form of resistance.
As we remember them, we are encouraged to follow in their footsteps…
“It is the duty of the young Negro artist, if he accepts any duties at all from outsiders to change through the force of his [work] that old whispering ‘I want to be white,’ hidden in the aspirations of his people, to ‘why should I want to be white? I’m a Negro – and beautiful!'”
The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain ~ Langston Hughes.