50 Years Later, Raised Fists During National Anthem Still Resonate In the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, two Americans won medals for the 200-meter race. And then in a move that still echoes, they raised their fists in the black power salute on the podium.
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50 Years Later, Raised Fists During National Anthem Still Resonate

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50 Years Later, Raised Fists During National Anthem Still Resonate

50 Years Later, Raised Fists During National Anthem Still Resonate

50 Years Later, Raised Fists During National Anthem Still Resonate

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/657724894/657724895" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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In the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, two Americans won medals for the 200-meter race. And then in a move that still echoes, they raised their fists in the black power salute on the podium.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Fifty years ago at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, track fans anticipated an especially exciting 200-meter race.

(SOUNDBITE OF 1968 SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR: This is the hottest 200-meter field ever assembled at the Olympic Games.

INSKEEP: But it was what happened after that race that was so memorable. Karen Grigsby Bates of our Code Switch team has one of our reports on 1968.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: 1968 was a tumultuous year around the globe, and Mexico City was no exception. The games began in tumult because a few days before, the army had opened fire on thousands of students protesting in a city square. Some reports say as many as 300 were killed. Their blood was washed from the streets, and the games began soon after.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN WILLIAMS' "BUGLER'S DREAM AND OLYMPIC FANFARE MEDLEY")

BATES: It was in this atmosphere that runners John Carlos and Tommie Smith came to Mexico City. They had a plan. They were going to protest racism and injustice on the world stage. In an oral history for the Library of Congress, John Carlos said he'd met Martin Luther King just before King was killed. King's vision of how effective a nonviolent Olympic protest could be left a lasting impression.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN CARLOS: I wanted to do something that would be so powerful that it would reach the ends of the earth and yet still be nonviolent.

BATES: At the games, Carlos won a bronze medal for the 200; Smith, a gold, setting another world record. As they walked to the Olympic podium, people noticed both men were carrying their sneakers and wearing black socks, symbols of an impoverished black America. As the national anthem played and the flags began to rise, Smith and Carlos bowed their heads and raised their black-gloved fists in the air. Years later, talking to ABC Australia TV, Australian Peter Norman, the silver medalist who shared the podium with Smith and Carlos, recalled the moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PETER NORMAN: The raised arm and the clenched hand was a symbol of unity, with the fingers coming together in a symbol of strength. It was never - I don't believe it was ever meant as a threatening gesture.

BATES: But that's exactly how it was taken by many. After a shocked silence, the stadium filled with boos. The photo of the raised fist salute was front page on newspapers around the globe within hours. As the ABC tapes showed, the consequences were immediate.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Smith and Carlos were told to leave the Olympic Village and Mexico within 48 hours. They were both stunned at the decision but retained their composure.

BATES: Both men were stripped of their medals. They got hate mail and death threats. They were shunned for decades in the U.S. for their silent gesture. Many black Americans thought Smith and Carlos were heroes, though. Their upraised fists became a symbol of refusal to give in to racial injustice, the precursor to taking a knee. San Jose State University professor Steven Millner teaches African-American studies now, but he was an undergrad at the school in 1968. He vividly remembers the two runners' reception when they came back to campus shortly after Mexico City.

STEVEN MILLNER: Hundreds of students put their fists up as soon as they saw Tommie and John walking toward the podium. And for the rest of that decade, the raised fist indicated the unity, the determination and a real appreciation for Smith and Carlos.

BATES: But there was a cost to those principles. For years, both men struggled to find good jobs. Their marriages suffered. Their children were bullied at school. Employers shied away from them. Smith and Carlos were banned from Olympic participation for life.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CARLOS: And I can live with that. I don't have to go to the Olympic Games.

BATES: At a talk at the Los Angeles Public Library in June, John Carlos says he realized he was an Olympic presence even in his absence. Their fisted salute showed up in artwork at the games in Munich and Melbourne. A huge statue of him and Smith at San Jose State is a much-visited tourist attraction. Earlier this year, Tommie Smith told DW News a higher authority inspired the moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF DW NEWS BROADCAST)

TOMMIE SMITH: It was divinely justified in the meetings of young black athletes who were hopefuls for the Olympic movement.

BATES: The gesture that was so misunderstood in 1968 is now better understood, even celebrated. And in 2008, this happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF 2008 ESPY AWARDS TELECAST)

SAMUEL L. JACKSON: Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the recipients of the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage, John Carlos and Tommie Smith.

(APPLAUSE)

BATES: Vindication at last.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SABZI'S "ON THE COUCH")

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