40 Years After Smith, Carlos Saluted Black Power Forty years ago today, track and field athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos made their famous, silent gesture at the Mexico City Olympic Games. For insight, NPR's Tony Cox speaks with David Steele, co-author of The Autobiography of Tommie Smith.
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40 Years After Smith, Carlos Saluted Black Power

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40 Years After Smith, Carlos Saluted Black Power

40 Years After Smith, Carlos Saluted Black Power

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I'm Farai Chideya, and this is News & Notes. Once again, it's a big week in sports, and NPR's Tony Cox is here to break down the latest. Hey, Tony.

TONY COX: Hey, Farai. You know, today is a significant day in Olympic sports history. 40 years ago today, track and field athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos made their famous silent gesture at the Mexico City Olympic Games.

CHIDEYA: 1968 was an amazing year, and that's no small example.

COX: You're exactly right. Two black gloved fists raised in the black power salute from the victory stand during an Olympic gold medal ceremony. It was one of the most memorable and explosive moments in sports history. Here's gold medalist Tommie Smith talking about that moment in a more recent interview with the BBC.

Mr. TOMMIE SMITH (Olympic Gold Medalist, Track and Field, Mexico City 1968): What I did is held my hand up in a cry for freedom. People call it black power. Of course I'm black. Of course it represented power. But it was a cry for freedom. Here, notice me, I'm in need. What do you need of? Justice.

COX: Today, Tommie Smith and John Carlos are being honored in Mexico City for their actions in '68, and we've asked David Steele to join us here to talk about that event and its impact. David is a sports writer for the Baltimore Sun, and he co-authored the autobiography of Tommie Smith called "Silent Gesture." David, welcome.

Mr. DAVID STEELE (Sports Writer, The Baltimore Sun): How are you today, Tony?

COX: Fine, thank you. Let's talk about this first. The human rights, the project, the Olympic Project for Human Rights, I believe that's the correct name of it. John Carlos and Tommie Smith were part of that. What did it have to do with the protest?

Mr. STEELE: It was begun on their campus. They were both students and runners at San Jose State University. And Dr. Harry Edwards, who's gone to do so many great things since then, was the originator of it. And Dr. Edward's original idea was to boycott the games and for the black athletes to make a statement for black America through that venue, and they decided by the time the games came along that they would sort of register their feelings in a protest in another way. But it began on campus and was stirred up by Tommie Smith and John Carlos, among other athletes there.

COX: A lot of people may not know that the Australian who was on the stand with them, a white Australian named Peter Norman who got the silver, wore an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge. He was a part of the protest also, wasn't he?

Mr. STEELE: Absolutely. You know and in a very famous picture, which is on the cover of the book and hanging on so many walls all over America and all over the world, you can see the badge on Peter Norman's chest during the medal ceremony. He was the silver medalist, and the three of them remained friends for life.

But the way that developed, as they were walking towards the stand at Mexico City after the race, Peter Norman asked if he could wear a button and be a part of what they were doing, and they immediately agreed. And he believed so strongly in that that him being a part of it caused him problems back in Australia from the government and society also. He was as big a part of this protest as the other two.

COX: What I remember about seeing that and comparing that, in fact, to the O.J. Simpson trial, it was as if white America was appalled, and black America was happy. What happened to Smith and Carlos when they got back after being expelled from the Olympics by the Olympic Committee?

Mr. STEELE: It was a very harsh welcome back to the United States, back to San Jose. The immediate reaction, there was a lot of booing in the stands, and there was a demand that they remove their medals and throw them out. The Olympic Committee did expel them. They did get to keep their medals, but they were ostracized. On campus, there were death threats constantly, and they were receiving death threats before the games as well, but they obviously intensified afterwards. And they really had more or less to go into hiding, even though they wanted to continue their studies and really continue to be athletes as well. It really affected their lives deeply on a personal and professional level even to this day.

COX: One of the things that was odd was some of the other athletes who were black who were at the Olympics at that time did not participate in that. Talk briefly what the impact of that was? I'm thinking now - I believe George Forman was there in '68. I hope I'm correct about that and...

Mr. STEELE: You're very correct

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: I remember seeing him holding the American flag at the same time.

Mr. STEELE: Yeah. That happened after the protest, and there were several events, obviously, that black athletes were participating in before that there at the games. In track and field, as a matter of fact, several gold medals had already been handed out, and all of them had the option of making some sort of statement, and they all decided not to for various reasons. Largely because they feared the backlash they would have on them personally, and how they'd be viewed by other Americans and others within athletics because they wanted to protect their careers and futures.

George Forman was actually handed that American flag after winning his gold medal in boxing by his coach, who was vehemently against the things that Tommie Smith and the other members of the Olympic Project for Human Rights were standing for. So George Forman, and he's admitted this later on, was sort of unwittingly part of that, and he waved it in the ring. And he became an American icon, and he's said since then that, when he came back to the United States, he thought he would be the hero among black Americans. And he found that he was the outcast, and that Tommie Smith and John Carlos, among black Americans, were the heroes.

COX: So here we are, 40 years later. John Carlos, Tommie Smith about to be given the Arthur Ash Courage Award - in fact, they were given that at the Espy's, and are being honored again in Mexico City on the 40th anniversary. Do they say, if you've been in touch with either of them, do they say that it was all worth it as they look back?

Mr. STEELE: They've always said it's been worth it, and they've suffered some terrible trials and personal setbacks. The death threats, not just to themselves, but to their families. Their careers have been affected. Their livelihoods have been affected. A lot of - both of them have had to move around several times, and they've even had their own personal struggles with each other. But during this year, when receiving the Espy's and in making appearances all over the country, to talk about what happened 40 years ago, and to look toward Beijing just this past summer, they've come together and talked about how they've had no regrets. If they had the opportunity, they would do it again. And if anybody today was so inspired to do the same thing, they would highly encourage it.

COX: David, thank you very much.

Mr. STEELE: Thank you for having me.

COX: David Steele is a sports writer for the Baltimore Sun, and he co-authored the book, "Silent Gesture: The Autobiography of Tommie Smith." He joined us from the studios of the Baltimore Sun.

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