American runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos ascend the podium to receive the gold and bronze medals for the men’s 200-meter race at the Mexico City Olympics on October 16, 1968. Once their medals have been placed around their necks, as the American flag is raised and “The Star-Spangled Banner” begins to play over the loudspeakers, Smith and Carlos each raise a fist in the Black Power salute, one of the most famous moments of political speech in the history of the Olympics, and of American sport.
The photo of Smith and Carlos with their fists raised on the podium caused a media sensation and remains one of the most iconic images of 20th century sports. But far from a singular incident, their protest was one of a series of antiracist actions undertaken by Black athletes that year. Smith and Carlos were both active in the Olympic Project for Human Rights, a program of boycotts and protests that was largely the brainchild of San Jose State sociologist Dr. Harry Edwards. The OPHR sought to use sports, specifically the Olympics and related events, to expose the myriad ways in which Black athletes were exploited and mistreated.
Formed by Edwards and a group of college athletes, many of whom were in contention for the next summer’s Olympics, the OPHR first made headlines when Black football players at San Jose State threatened not to play the opening game of the season unless the school addressed the systemic racism that Black students faced on campus and in the community. SJSU’s president preemptively cancelled the game, but quickly acceded to many of the players’ demands. Just a few months later, in February of 1968, OPHR members led by Smith and sprinter Lee Evans launched a boycott of the New York Athletic Club’s annual indoor track meet that included over 100 Black athletes, including many future Olympians. The boycott of NYAC, which barred Puerto Ricans, Jews and African Americans from membership, drew further media attention to the OPHR’s cause and led to large protests outside of Madison Square Garden, where the meet was held.
OPHR’s original goal was a Black boycott of the Olympics themselves. Among other institutional issues, activists pointed to the overt anti-Semitism of Avery Brundage, president of the International Olympic Committee, and his attempt to bring apartheid South Africa to the games, which drew threats of a boycott from Black athletes and African nations. Still, many athletes felt they simply could not pass up the opportunity to compete at the Olympics.
The 1968 Olympics were destined to be politically charged, beginning just a few months after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and immediately preceded by a horrendous massacre of hundreds student activists—the exact number remains unknown—by the Mexican government in Tlatelolco Plaza. Against this backdrop, and after a year of strident athlete activism and some progress, Smith and Carlos felt compelled to raise their fists on the podium. Carlos wore black socks with no shoes in recognition of Black poverty, and a beaded necklace to protest lynching. He and Smith shared a pair of black gloves (hence Smith raised his right hand, Carlos his left) while Peter Norman, the Australian who had taken silver, wore an OPHR pin in solidarity with them. Smith and Carlos’ actions were met with boos, and they were vilified by the American press—broadcaster Brent Musburger, then a writer for the Chicago American, called them “a couple of black-skinned storm troopers”—as well as the IOC, which expelled them from the Games.
Smith and Carlos went on to successful careers as athletes and speakers, and continued their activism. “It was a cry for freedom and for human rights,” Smith later said of the protest. “We had to be seen because we couldn’t be heard.”