October 16th marks the 45th anniversary of an iconic moment in sports history, in African-American history and in civil rights history. On this day in 1968, at the Olympics Games in Mexico City, two black U.S. medalists—Tommie Smith and John Carlos—took the victory stand with their heads bowed and eyes closed, their hands raised with black gloves, and fists clenched. Their “black power salute” during the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner was a silent protest by these athletes against racial injustice, and their statement, viewed then as a controversial combination of Olympic sports and politics, sent shock waves throughout the games.
Although the now legendary photo of the two men standing with clenched fists is universally recognized, the story behind the story is seldom mentioned, much less taught in schools.
The actions of Smith—the gold medalist in the 200-meter race—and Carlos—the bronze winner—must be viewed within the context of the times in which the men lived. And the times were turbulent and divisive. After all, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert F. Kennedy had been assassinated only months before the games at Mexico City. The United States was engulfed in anti-Vietnam War protests and civil rights demonstrations. Antiwar protestors had been beaten by police during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. There were calls for black power in African-American communities throughout the nation, and the Black Panther Party had expanded to cities across America.
Enter Harry Edwards, author of The Revolt of the Black Athlete. Edwards was the organizer of theOlympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR), an effort of black athletes to boycott the Olympics in protest of racial discrimination. The project was part of a push to have black athletes speak not only to the interests of athletes, but to show a concern for their communities and connect to the larger civil rights movement as well.