1968 was a pivotal year in American history as well as one of the most turbulent. The year began with the further expansion of the unjust war in Vietnam that exacerbated the ongoing tensions between two different generations of Americans. On February 8, 1968, three students at South Carolina State University were killed by state patrol officers while protesting segregation at a local bowling alley in what became known as the Orangeburg Massacre. On March 31, 1968, President Lyndon Johnson announced that he would not seek out a second term as President as disapproval for the war in Vietnam was growing. On April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee just as he was pushing for a Poor People’s Campaign that would have addressed poverty and economic injustice that was followed subsequently by rebellions in major cities in outrage. On June 5, 1968, Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles after winning the Democratic primary in California and was on his way to becoming the next President, if not perhaps America’s savior. Tensions arose at the Democratic National Convention on August 28, 1968 in which Chicago police assaulted anti-war protestors outside the convention hall. In the midst of all this, there was a burgeoning rebellion taking place in the world of sports, particularly with the upcoming Olympic Games to be held in Mexico City. It began on the campus of San Jose State University and ended with sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos taking a stand before the world’s eyes.
In 1967, as Tommie Smith, John Carlos, and fellow sprinter Lee Evans converged at San Jose State, racism was permeating throughout the small campus, even in the supposed tolerance of Northern California. Many of the black athletes were denied access to housing on and off campus and were denied service at many local restaurants, reminiscent of the Jim Crow south. It was then that former athlete and now Sociology professor Dr. Harry Edwards who taught courses on race and sports organized fellow athletes in advocating for racial justice. Dr. Edwards was a pioneer in viewing sports as not innately separate from the rest of the society and fully understanding that sport has tremendous power to advance social change. He also sought to convince athletes that they had to do and say more than just simply talking about sports. Ultimately, Dr. Edwards created the Olympic Project for Human Rights. The goal of the organization was to address racism within sports and society. The OPHR had a set of specific demands and if those demands were not met, black athletes threatened to boycott the 1968 Olympics. Those demands included the hiring of more black coaches, the disinviting of South Africa and Rhodesia that were under apartheid rule, the restoring of Muhammad Ali’s title after he courageously refused to go to Vietnam as a consciousness objector, and the firing of International Olympic Committee Avery Brundage, who was an open racist and anti-Semite. It was Brundage who opened the doors for Hitler to host the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, therefore legitimizing Nazi ideology and practice. Brundage also owned a country club in Santa Barbara, California in which now African Americans and Jews were welcomed.
The OPHR was grassroots and there was support from athletes such as Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul Jabbar), Lucius Allen, and Mike Warren who were part of UCLA’s basketball dynasty and who refused to tryout for the U.S. team. Dr. King himself was the first national leader to publicly endorse the project and proposed boycott. Even the all white Harvard University rowing crew declared their support for the project. The project had difficulty getting all athletes to get on board, particularly with the idea of a boycott. After a year of debate, the boycott was called off, but the idea of taking a stand was set. Black athletes decided that everybody would do their own thing to make a stand for racial justice while in Mexico City. Here is a clip of Dr. King supporting the project.
Once the athletes arrived in Mexico City, they encountered a country was falling under tyranny. Protests against the repression of the Mexican government were ongoing at the same time as the games, especially with the government’s crackdown on labor unions and other civil rights. Ten days before the games were to begin; students organized and protest at Plaza des la Tres Culturlas in Tlatelolco, Mexico. They were showing their distain for the Olympics coming in the midst of all this turbulence. In response, the government sent over 5,000 soldiers and 200 tanks to the plaza and fired indiscriminately. Hundreds of students and civilians were killed in what became known as the Massacre of Tlatelolco Square. The government decided to go through with the games as is the case in so many Olympics were profit and world recognition is put over the lives of people. As the athletes stepped over the plane, they knew that their accomplishments on the field in sport paled in
On October 16, the fifth day of the Olympics, the finals of the 200 meter race in track were set to begin. Tommie Smith and John Carlos were set to run. Tommie ended up setting a new world record as he won the gold medal. John came in third winning the bronze and Australian runner Peter Norman came in second winning the silver. As they approached the podium for the medal ceremony, Tommie and John were wearing black socks with no shoes to symbolize poverty in the African American community. John was wearing beads around his neck in honor of those who were the victims of lynching. He also had his team jacket unzipped and open to show support for working class Americans. Both had a black glove on, Tommie on his right hand, and John on his left hand. All three had an OPHR button on to show support for the project. Then the national anthem played and before the world, Tommie and John bowed their heads, closed their eyes, and raised their
Once the anthem concluded and as they walked off the podium, Tommie and John were met with a chorus of boos and jeers. They made one final salute as they walked off the track. The U.S. and International Olympic Committees suspended them from the games and they were sent back home. The media accused them of being so called “traitors” or “disrespectful” and famed broadcaster Brent Musberger called them “black skinned storm troopers”, a statement he shamefully stands by to this day. There were death threats, FBI surveillance, and periods of unemployment and hardship. Both men suffered for their good dead, but they also inspired a generation of athletes and activists to view sport as a lens for creating a just and equal world. They were welcoming heroes to the African American community and beyond and their powerful salute still remains a classic symbol of strength, solidarity, and support for all that are oppressed.
50 years later, we now are living in a time where athletes taking a stand for social justice are more prevalent then ever. Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality and racism mirrors the protest of Tommie and John. NBA players such as Lebron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Dwayne Wade, and Stephen Curry taking public stands in support for Black Lives Matter. The U.S. Women’s Hockey and Soccer teams standing up and advocating for equal pay and gender equality. WNBA players such as Maya Moore, Sue Bird, Tina Charles, and Breanna Stewart also taking a stand in support of Black Lives Matter, #MeToo in support of victims/survivors of sexual violence, LGBTQ equality, and fighting for an equal salary. NFL players such as Malcolm Jenkins, Eric Reid, and others creating the Players Coalition that advocates for criminal justice reform and combating police brutality that can be seen as another OPHR. The Missouri Football team a few years ago showing support for student protests against racism on campus and demanding the University president step down, which ultimately happened. The U.S. gymnastics team speaking their truth about being victimized by Dr. Larry Nassir and advocating for victims of sexual abuse. White athletes and coaches such as Chris Long of the Philadelphia Eagles, Steve Kerr, and Greg Popovich showing solidarity for black athletes and using his resources to fight for educational equality is an example of the white ally that is much needed today and what Peter Norman showed on that medal stand in Mexico City.
These are just some of the examples of athlete activism that is ongoing and is a continuation of what Tommie and John began in 1968. Their act of civil disobedience was a monumental moment in American history that had a tremendous effect beyond the sports world. They captured the world’s imagination and it was their fists for freedom that compelled people to take action and to demand change. To those athletes, coaches, and advocates, keep up the good fight.