Black History Month: Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos

By Kevin Sethre, staff writer

Photo of Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the winners podium at the 1968 Summer Olympic Games from Mondadori Publishers and obtained through Wikimedia Commons

After winning the gold and bronze medals in the 200-meter dash at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, African-American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos decided to use the medal ceremony as a platform to advocate for social justice. 

The duo stood on the podium without shoes while wearing only black socks “to symbolize poverty in the Black community,”  according to an article in USA Today, as well as several other symbolic messages. Smith, who had just broken the world record in the 200 by running it in 19.83 seconds, later explained that the scarf he wore around his neck “was a symbol of Black pride and Blackness in America.” Carlos wore beads around his neck “to honor victims of lynchings” and an unzipped jacked to represent “solidarity with the working class in America.”  Both of them, along with the Australian silver medalist Peter Norman, wore patches on their jackets from the Olympic Project for Human Rights, which had been founded by Dr. Harry Edwards the previous year, and was “comprised of prominent Olympic athletes created to expose the mistreatment of Black athletes in America.”

However, the most famous image of the demonstration happened when Smith and Carlos raised their fists. Smith wore a black glove on his right hand and Carlos wore one on his left hand as symbols of Black power and Black unity respectively.  While their protest was not well-received when they returned home, the images of their demonstration have become iconic in the decades since, and the International Olympic Committee announced in June 2020 that they would be reviewing their policy around protesting during future Games, with Smith and Carlos’ demonstration being one of the reasons.

The United States Olympic Committee also recently admitted that they were wrong in the way they treated Smith and Carlos.  More than fifty years after “banishing them from the Mexico City and leaving them to face scorn and condemnation at home,” it was announced in 2019 that they would be inducted into the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Hall of Fame.

The demonstrations took place during a very tumultuous time in American history. When the two sprinters decided to raise their fists during the ceremony on Oct. 16, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated only six months earlier in Memphis, and Robert F. Kennedy, the younger brother of former President John F. Kennedy and a close friend of Dr. King’s, had been assassinated in June while he was on the campaign trail for the 1968 presidential election in Los Angeles. The Civil Rights Act of 1968, which prohibited discrimination in housing and expanded on other civil rights legislation of the time, had just been signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson in the aftermath of King’s assassination, and racial tensions were still very high in many parts of the country. At the same time, the United States was involved in the Vietnam War, which was growing increasingly unpopular, and tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union were as high as ever.

During those crazy times, Tommie Smith and John Carlos were brave enough to take a stand against the injustices that the Black community in the United States faced, because they understood that it was worth fighting for, even if it cost them their track careers.