The Enduring Power of Black Power

By Curtis John

In 1968 John Carlos & Tommie Smith raised their fists for freedom, justice, and equality, and they shook the world.

Everyone knows their fists, raised high in the air on the Olympic stage in salute of Black Power. But not everyone knows who John Carlos and Tommie Smith are, or what happened after they descended from the medal podium. The following is a primer on this historic moment, and how their lives were afterward affected. 

The 1968 Summer Olympics took place in Mexico City only a few months after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and ten days after the Tlatelolco Massacre, in which an unarmed group of Mexican student protesters, and numerous civilians, were brutally murdered.  

John Carlos at the East New York 5k (2018)

In an effort to demand better treatment for Black athletes and Black folks internationally, both Carlos and Smith helped to organize the Olympic Project for Human Rights. Among their demands were the hiring of more Black coaches and rescinding Olympic invitations to Rhodesia (now Zimabawe) and South Africa, which both practiced apartheid on the African contentient. Though a boycott was initially planned, with planning from OPHR’s leader Harry Edwards the Black Power salute demonstration was decided instead.  

Before the Olympics, Carlos and Smith were teammates at San Jose State University.  At the 1968 U.S. Olympic Trials, Carlos beat Smith and his world record, running 19.92 seconds. But Carlos’ record was disallowed because of his Puma brush spike shoes (68 needle-like spikes in the front of the sole instead of the ordinary four to six spikes) he was wearing.

At the Olympic games, Smith and Carlos, after winning gold and bronze medals, respectively, for the 200 meter sprint (Smith did it in 19.83 seconds – the first time the 20-second barrier was legally broken), used this highly public space to stage their demonstration. And in doing so, each with a black-gloved hand in the air, displayed their frustration with white supremacy and their feelings on the passivity of the Civil Rights Movement, to create what would become among the most iconographic images of Black pride.  

That act, of course, got them kicked off the U.S. Olympic team.  

Officials felt their protest against U.S. domestic policies were not inline with the apolitical stance of the Olympics.   In a 2016 interview with Pitch International, Ralph Boston, a black U.S. long jumper at the 1968 games, stated: “The rest of the world didn’t seem to find it such a derogatory thing. They thought it was very positive. Only America thought it was bad.”  Following their Black Power stance, both athletes, and their families received death threats and faced economic hardships.

But they also did what they do best…they kept running!

In 1969, Carlos had his best year ever year in track and field. He equaled the world 100-yard record of 9.1 seconds, won the AAU 220-yard run, and led San Jose State to its first NCAA championship with victories in the 100 and 220 and as a member of the 4×110-yard relay. 

In his San Jose State track career, Smith set seven individual world records and also was a member of several world-record relay teams. Boasting personal records of 10.1 for 100 meters, 19.83 for 200 and 44.5 for the 400, he still ranks high on the world all-time lists.

After college, Carlos was a 15th-round selection in the 1970 NFL Draft, but a knee injury cut short his tryout for the Philadelphia Eagles. He did go on to the Canadian Football League and played one season for the Montreal Alouettes.

By contrast, Smith was originally drafted by the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams in the ninth round of the ‘67 Draft, signed to play for the American Football League’s Cincinnati Bengals.  He was part of the team’s practice squad for most of three seasons as a wide receiver. During the 1969 season, he played in two games, catching one pass for 41 yards.

Following his retirement from football, Carlos worked for Puma, then ironically for the United States Olympic Committee, the Organizing Committee of the 1984 Summer Olympics and the City of Los Angeles. He would go on to become a high school track and field coach, and In 2003, was elected to the National Track & Field Hall of Fame (Smith himself became a member in 1978).  

Smith later became a track coach at Oberlin College in Ohio, where he also taught sociology and until 2005 was a faculty member teaching physical education at Santa Monica College. His autobiography, Silent Gesture, was published in 2007. In August 2008, he gave 2008 Olympic triple gold winner Usain Bolt one of his shoes from the 1968 Olympics as a birthday gift.

The tribute monument to Smith and Carlos at San Jose State University

Hated by many after their demonstration, time now sees them as heroes.  In 2005, a statue showing Carlos and Smith on the medal stand was constructed by political artist Rigo 23 and dedicated at their alma mater, on the campus of San Jose State University.

But more than all this, the legacy for Black power that Tommie Smith and John Carlos created, how their sacrifice continues to inspire countless people in the global fight for human rights, is ever-lasting.  It’s so much more than iconography, it’s an infinite power that will never be contained.  

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