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40 Years Ago Today: Why the Smith and Carlos Legacy Lingers


(Oct. 16, 2008) — It lasted for only as long as it took to play the National Anthem, and yet it’s lasted for four decades. The image of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, their black-gloved fists raised to the heavens on October 16th, 1968 at the Mexico City Olympics, has somehow grown in power over the last 40 years. Unlike other iconography from the 1960s – Woodstock, Abbie Hoffman, Dick Nixon – the moment isn’t musty. It has retains its ability to pack a punch. Go up to Harlem and street merchants still sell t-shirts of the medal stand moment on the corner stands. Turn on HBO this month and see the continual running of the 2004 documentary about the movement behind the moment, Fists of Freedom. Watch ESPN and they pose the question whether any athletes at the upcoming 2008 games in Beijing will be raising criticisms of the Chinese government by “pulling a Smith or Carlos.” (This last question, which I have been asked repeatedly, has always struck me as odd. Smith and Carlos didn’t go to Mexico City after all to criticize Mexico.)

A question worth asking is why: Why has a moment that emblemizes a very specific moment in time – the fires of 1968 – found a place in contemporary consciousness? Why has it retained its cultural capital? I spoke recently on a panel with John Carlos and afterward there was a line that stretched long and deep of young people born years (even decades) after 1968, asking Carlos to sign posters, T-shirts, even pins all emblazoned with that moment. You don’t see a similar reaction sparked by Jefferson Airplane.

There are several reasons I believe this moment has retained its power. The most obvious is that people love a good redemption song. Smith and Carlos were standing up against racism in both sport and society. They wanted South Africa and Rhodesia banned from the games for their apartheid politics. They wanted more black coaches. They wanted International Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage held accountable for his open and virulent racism. They wanted Muhammad Ali – “the warrior saint of the black athlete’s revolt” – to have his title restored. And they were reviled for taking their stand and using the Olympic podium to do it. But these “radical” demands have since been proven prescient and Smith and Carlos have made the journey over four decades from receiving countless death threats and being athletic pariahs to having statues unveiled in their honor. Quite an adventure: one that says more about our collective journey than theirs.

But there are other less backward-looking reason the black gloves have retained their power: Smith and Carlos sacrificed privilege and glory for a larger purpose. They left fame and money on the table because of a higher calling. As John Carlos said to me, “A lot of the athletes thought that winning medals would supercede or protect them from racism. But even if you won the medal it aint going to save your momma. It aint going to save your sister or children. It might give you 15 minutes of fame, but what about the rest of your life?”

This resonates because we still live in a world where racism is still very real. If hurricane Katrina taught us nothing else, it’s that for every Barack Obama and Condi Rice, there remain countless communities where poverty and institutional racism create graveyards of agony.

It also resonates because Smith and Carlos used that ubiquitous platform of sports to make their stand. Today sports is a global, trillion dollar business which thanks to cable television, the internet, and corporate sponsorship, is vastly greater than four decades ago. The idea of athletes using their hyper-exalted-brought-to-you-by-Nike platform to speak out about injustice is almost unthinkable. Almost. We have seen athletes like the NBA’s Etan Thomas and the NFL’s Scott Fujita speak out on war, poverty, and racism in the United States. We have seen platinum plated stars on the US Olympic basketball team like Kobe Bryant and Lebron James raise concerns about China’s connection to the genocide in Darfur. None of this comes close to matching the moment of Smith and Carlos. But it holds the dangerous, tantalizing, whiff of a time when even the world of sports wasn’t immune to the politics of protest. For some, it’s a noxious scent, for others a sweet perfume but it sure lingers in the air. 

[Dave Zirin is the author of a  People’s History of Sports in the United States (The New Press) and is the sports correspondent for the Nation Magazine.]

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