Editor’s Note: This column also appears in the Feb. 14 issue of The Daily Dispatch.
Who would have thought that two teammates from San Jose State would shake the tree of injustice in front of the entire planet?
Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ performance on the track in Mexico City could rank as two of the best individual performances in Olympic history, but their feats were overshadowed by their act off of it.
1968 was a year of unrest. Not only was America involved in the Vietnam War, but was warring with itself as the Civil Rights Movement had reached its pinnacle. And along with the good of ‘68 (Apollo space program, Carl Brashear — the basis for the movie ‘Men of Honor’ — becoming the first amputee certified to make diving missions) was the bad (the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., the slaying of 16-year-old Black Panther Bobby Hutton).
Not even the Olympics Games were immune. Ten days before the opening ceremonies, the Tlatelolco Massacre occurred in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Mexico City where 300 student protestors were killed by police, almost prompting the cancelation of the Games. However, regardless of the event, regardless of the patriotism, black Olympians couldn’t remove the shroud of unfortunate circumstances that their country gave them. And what began in the ring with gold medalist Cassius Clay chucking his medal into the water eight years before, ended on the track in ‘68.
The stage was set for a great 200-meter final before anyone arrived in Mexico City. Smith was an elite sprinter while at San Jose State and when his teammate Carlos beat him in the Olympic Trials, it setup for a highly anticipated 200-meter medal round. Neither man disappointed.
Smith ran away from the field, crossing the line and winning the gold, in a record at the time of 19.83 seconds — Carlos earned the bronze. But many people don’t remember the race. They remember the medal presentation. As the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ played, both Smith and Carlos — head bowed and bare footed — raised a black-gloved fist in protest of the conditions of black Americans.
It was as if the race was won to raise the consciousness of the plight of black America.
“This was to draw attention to the malfunctioning of a nation that was suppose to represent equality and it did not,” Smith said on the talk show ‘The New York Circuit’ in 2007. “We wanted to bring attention to what was not done according to the Constitution.”
The attention was too much. Amidst death threats, IOC president Avery Brundage ordered that both Smith and Carlos be suspended from the U.S. team and banned from the Olympic Village. Neither man was stripped of his medal.
During his career, Smith held world records in the 100, 200 and 400 meters and his speed allowed him to have a three-year stint in the NFL at wide receiver for the Cincinnati Bengals. He was elected to the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1978 — Carlos was elected in 2003.
What happens when two teammates shake the tree of injustice in front of the entire planet? They make history.