Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ Olympic Protest Heard ‘Round the World

We remember Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the 43rd anniversary of their heroic protest.

By Jorge Rivas Oct 17, 2011

It was 43 years ago today that millions of people around the world saw two African-American men raise their fists in the air in a Black Power salute during the pledge of allegiance at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico.  

The two athletes were Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who had each won medals in the 200m dash. As the American national anthem played during the victory ceremony, Smith and Carlos bowed their heads and raised their black-gloved fists. 

It was a historic and heartbreaking year: Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy would be assassinated before Christmas. Conditions in many poverty stricken black communities were deplorable. The Black Panther Party for Self Defense was not yet popular outside of Oakland, Calif., and Stokely Carmicheal was creating shock waves with his own articulation of a proud and defiant commitment to Black Power in the face of white racism. 

Tommie Smith, center, and John Carlos, right, make their protest

At a press conference after the event, Smith said, "If I win I am an American, not a black American. But if I did something bad then they would say ‘a Negro’. We are black and we are proud of being black."

"Black America will understand what we did tonight," Smith went on to say.

During the victory ceremony, both Smith and Carlos stood on the pedestal wearing only black socks. They went on to explain that the socks symbolized black poverty in the U.S. The beads around their necks symbolized the painful history of lynching in the U.S., Carlo’s jacket being unzipped (a tremendous breach in protocol) was a tribute to all blue collared workers — of any color.

Smith and Carlos were suspended from the national team, expelled from the Olympic village and sent home to the United States.

Carlos, who grew up in Harlem, joined Occupy Wall Street demonstrators yesterday.

"I am here for you," Carlos told the crowd gathered at Zuccotti Park, USA Today reports. "Why? Because I am you. We are here 43 years later because the fight is still to be won. We must never stop, for this day is not for us, but it’s for our children."

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