On October 17, 1968, Olympic gold medalist Tommie Smith and bronze medalist John Carlos are forced to return their awards because they raised their fists in a black-power salute during the medal ceremony. In a press conference the next day, International Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage deplored the athletes’ “outrageous stance”—it repudiated, he said, “the basic principles of the Olympic games.” The AP photograph of the ceremony is one of the most familiar and enduring images of a tumultuous era.
On October 16, Smith and Carlos finished first and third in the 200-meter dash at the Mexico City Olympics. Smith set a new world record: 19.83 seconds. Their medal-ceremony protest was relatively spontaneous—the pair decided what they’d do while they waited in the athletes’ lounge for the ceremony to begin–but the sprinters had been active in the civil rights movement long before they arrived in Mexico City. Along with Harry Edwards, one of their professors at San Jose State College, Smith and Carlos had organized a group called the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) that tried to encourage African-American athletes to boycott the Games. (Even if you won the medal,” Carlos said,” it ain’t going to save your momma. It ain’t going to save your sister or your children. It might give you 15 minutes of fame, but what about the rest of your life?”)
When they got to the podium for the medal ceremony, Smith and Carlos were wearing OPHR badges on their tracksuits. (Silver medalist Peter Norman, an Australian, wore one too.) They wore no shoes, to symbolize the poverty that plagued so many black Americans. Carlos wore a necklace of black beads, he said, “for those individuals that were lynched or killed that no one said a prayer for, that were hung tarred. It was for those thrown off the side of the boats in the middle passage.” Smith wore a black scarf. Both bowed their heads, raised their gloved hands and remained silent while “The Star-Spangled Banner” played.
People in the crowd booed and cursed at the athletes. The IOC convened the next day and determined that Smith and Carlos would have to forfeit their medals and leave the Olympic Village—and Mexico—immediately. Brundage even threatened to boot the entire American team as punishment. “The untypical exhibitionism of these athletes violates the basic standards of good manners and sportsmanship, which are so highly valued in the United States,” the U.S. Olympic Committee said “Such immature behavior is an isolated incident” and “a willful disregard of Olympic principles.”
Even after the athletes had been disciplined, the backlash continued. Newspapers compared the men to Nazis—Brett Musburger, a sportscaster for ABC, called them “black-skinned storm troopers.” Time called their act “nasty” and “ugly.” His “un-American activities” got Smith discharged from the Army, and someone threw a rock through a plate-glass window at his baby’s crib. The two men received death threats for years.
In some quarters, at least, public opinion has recently begun to shift, and many people now celebrate the sprinters’ courageous and principled act. In 2005, San José State University unveiled a 20-foot-tall statue honoring the two men.