Of Protest And Patriotism: A 1968 Gold Medalist Remembers The Games At the 1968 Games, some African-American athletes protested racial inequality but not all could. At StoryCorps, track star Melvin Pender recalls his teammates' demonstration with pride.
NPR logo

Of Protest And Patriotism: A 1968 Gold Medalist Remembers The Games

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/656492191/656814454" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Of Protest And Patriotism: A 1968 Gold Medalist Remembers The Games

Of Protest And Patriotism: A 1968 Gold Medalist Remembers The Games

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/656492191/656814454" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NOEL KING, HOST:

All right. It is time now for StoryCorps. Today is the 50th anniversary of the opening ceremonies of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. A lot of records were shattered at those games. But it was the Black Power salute on the podium by Tommie Smith and John Carlos that got all the headlines. Carlos's roommate at those games was a 31-year-old runner named Melvin Pender. He was a platoon leader in Vietnam when he got the call to compete. And recently, he came to StoryCorps with his friend Keith Sims to talk about that moment.

MELVIN PENDER: I went to Vietnam with the 9th Division straight to Mekong Delta. And things happened. You know, you couldn't see the enemy. They were shooting at us from the jungles. And I had one of my cadets killed. This young man died in my arms. And when I came in that day off that mission, this captain - he said I was going home. And I didn't want to go. I didn't want to leave my men. He said, it's an order from Washington. You have to go back, and you're going back to train for the Olympics. And I told my men - I said, I'm going back for you. I'm going to win this gold medal for you guys.

When we got to Mexico, we started getting threats from the president of the Olympic Committee, saying if we demonstrated in the Olympics, I'm going to send all you boys home. How are you going to - how are you going to call somebody a boy? I mean, here I just got out of combat, seeing people die, you know defending my country. You going to call me a boy? They don't make boys like me. Col. Miller called all us in and said, you know, you in the military. You know you can't get involved in any kind of demonstration. I said, I've been going to the meetings, yes. I said, we all have. We all black. Just 'cause I'm in the military don't make me any different. But I'm not going to do anything that's going to disgrace my family and my military career. To be on the relay team, it was my time to shine. I ran my heart out. We ended up winning the race at a world record time at 38.2 seconds.

KEITH SIMS: A gold medal.

PENDER: Right.

SIMS: Now, John Carlos was your roommate.

PENDER: Yes. Carlos was my roommate. When they was on that victor's stand with the black glove, the black socks, no shoes - and bow their head...

SIMS: How'd it make you feel...

PENDER: Proud.

SIMS: ...When you saw that?

PENDER: Proud. You know, when Carlos came back to the room, I could see the hurt in his eyes. And he just said I did what I had to do, Mel. And that's when I told him - I said, I'm so proud of you. They was not trying to disgrace the national anthem of America. What was happening was wrong. They were trying to show the world, hey, we are human beings. We are human. That changed my life.

KING: That was retired Capt. Melvin Pender. He won a gold medal in the 4x100 meter relay in the '68 Olympics. And right after Mexico City, he was sent back to Vietnam, where he earned a Bronze Star. He and John Carlos are still friends today. And this interview will be archived, along with hundreds of thousands of others, at the Library of Congress.

Copyright © 2018 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.