Caption: Sprinters Tommie Smith (center) and John Carlos (right) raise their fists in the “Black Power Salute” during the playing of the national anthem at the Olympics in Mexico City, October 16, 1968. Photo Credit: Rich Clarkson/Getty Images

By David Kurlander

Last Friday, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell officially apologized for his 2018 decision to fine players who knelt on-field in protest of police brutality during the national anthem. The statement came as President Trump Tweeted repeatedly about his continued opposition to kneeling and attacked Saints quarterback Drew Brees after the star apologized for his own initial condemnation of the practice. The continued power of sports-based protest—and the tendency of those in power to minimize the critiques therein—hearken back to arguably the most famous moment of athletic anti-racism: Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ raising of their fists after medaling in the 200-meter dash at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.

The image: Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the two premier American sprinters of the 1968 Olympic Games and ready to receive Gold and Bronze medals, raising their clenched right hands, covered in black leather gloves, in a Black Power salute. Just as salient as the act, however, is the complicated five-year journey that preceded the athletes’ decision—an odyssey that reveals, as with the kneeling controversy, a far more structured set of grievances. 

In 1963, Avery Brundage, the longtime head of the International Olympic Committee, was in crisis. Brundage was supposed to convene the IOC in Nairobi, Kenya, to decide the locale for the 1968 Games. The Kenyan delegation, however, had retracted their offer to host the meeting after Brundage refused calls to ban the apartheid governments of South Africa and Rhodesia from the Games. The IOC met instead in Baden Baden, Germany, where Committee members  initially decided that South Africa could still participate in 1968. 

Brundage was an extremely wealthy Chicago-based apartment developer and Asian art collector. A 1912 decathlon star, he was the seminal voice against American boycott of the 1936 Berlin Games—hosted by an increasingly hostile and openly anti-Semitic Hitler. Brundage had charged that the U.S. boycott movement was orchestrated by a “Jewish-Communist conspiracy.” He had become less overtly bigoted in the intervening thirty years, ascending to the head of the IOC in 1952 and working toward the continued amateurism of the games and for political neutrality. In the eyes of his detractors, however, this refusal to take sides belied continued racism. His accommodation of South Africa reinforced these fears.

Meanwhile, at San Jose State University, Black basketball star Harry Edwards had just turned down several professional offers in favor of a graduate sociology fellowship at Cornell. Edwards became an expert in the racial dynamics of athletics—including learning a lot about Avery Brundage—and returned to San Jose in 1966 with a sense of mission. He first set out to reform the school’s discriminatory dormitory and Greek life policies, which had made it impossible for many football players to find adequate housing. Edwards organized a football boycott to draw attention to the inequity. The move got so much press that Governor Reagan tried to get Edwards dismissed. In the process, Edwards became close with the school’s two most famous sprinters, Smith and Carlos, activists in their own right and shoe-ins for the Olympics. They joined forces.

On Thanksgiving, 1967, Edwards, Smith, Carlos, and UCLA Basketball star Lew Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), attended the Black Youth Conference in Los Angeles, where both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Black Panther Party co-founder Huey Newton spoke. A large delegation of Black athletes agreed to formalize their opposition to the Olympics in a new group, with Edwards nominally leading, called the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR). The group, with the support of both King and the Panthers, agreed to tentatively boycott the 1968 Games. They released a resolution explaining their reasoning, from continued domestic racism, to the Vietnam War, to Muhammad Ali’s mistreatment, and to Brundage’s refusal to bar South Africa. 

The OPHR quickly became national news, and Smith and Carlos, as two of the most vocal athletic spokespeople for the cause, became targets of death threats. “I had to live in fear every time I went on the track, every time I went to class, every time I went home, hoping my house wouldn’t be blown up or the windows shot up while my wife and son were inside,” Smith wrote in his autobiography.

Brundage—who had been looking for some kind of face-saving compromise—ultimately convinced South Africa in February 1968 to integrate their team in exchange for a lift on the ban. The OPHR quickly issued a condemnatory letter, which stated, “Avery Brundage…personally sought to solidify support behind the move to readmit South Africa even though, basically, there has been no change in White South Africa’s demeanor toward its 14 million oppressed Black people.” Thirty-two African nations, the USSR, and countries across the Caribbean and the Middle East decided to boycott alongside the OPHR. The IOC announced in April that South Africa would not, after all, be sending a delegation to Mexico City.

Smith and Carlos obviously ended up going to the October 1968 Games. The lead-up to the Olympics, however, only became more of a referendum on race and power, with a successful OPHR boycott of the all-white, Olympic-adjacent New York Athletic Club, and—in Mexico City just ten days before the Games—a brutal police massacre of university protestors at the National Polytechnic University. After their protest, Brundage banished them from the Olympic Village. “We seem to live in an age where violence and turbulence are the order of the day,” Brundage explained. “Warped mentalities and cracked personalities seem to be everywhere and impossible to eliminate.” Brundage stayed on for the 1972 Olympics, but retired after widespread criticism of his handling of the violence against Israeli Olympians.

Edwards summed up Brundage’s blindness in his memoir, The Struggle That Must Be: “Smith and Carlos were banished for having committed the ultimate Black transgression in a white supremacist society: They dared to become visible, to stand up for the dignity of Black people, to protest from an international platform the racist inhumanity of American society.” Edwards could certainly have been speaking about Trump’s recent Tweets about kneeling.  

Beyond memoirs by Smith, Carlos, and Edwards, Amy Bass’s Not the Triumph but the Struggle: The 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete and Richard Hoffer’s Something in the Air : American Passion and Defiance in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics provide riveting chronicles.

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