1968 ‘Black Power Salute’ Sparked Ongoing Miscarriage Of Justice

Above Photo: From left on the 200-meter medal stand at the Mexico City Olympics: Australian Peter Norman and Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos. (Angelo Cozzi / Wikimedia Commons)

…By U.S. Olympic Committee

Editor’s note: This article includes material that was in a 2008 article by Allen Barra that was published in The New York Times.

C. Robert “Bob” Paul Jr. was one of the most interesting sports figures you probably never heard of. He was born in 1918 and died near his home on Long Island in 2011. For much of his life, he was a publicist, first for his alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, and later for the United States Olympic Committee (USOC).

In an obit for Paul released by the USOC, longtime spokesman Mike Moran wrote: “With his death goes an important cornerstone of a long ago USOC and its remarkable history.” Mr. Moran was right. There was a book in Paul, and it’s a terrible shame that he never got around to writing it.

Eight years ago, I sought him out at a retirement home in the borough of Queens, N.Y., while researching what I regarded then and still regard as the most important unresolved issue in American Olympics history.

“It was a story that should have made headlines for one day,” said Paul, who was the USOC’s publicist at the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City. “If they had handled the whole affair right, with some reason, tolerance and common sense, it would have been something we could now look back on with pride. Instead, it’s the Olympics’ biggest ongoing shame.”

We were discussing the most famous gesture of protest ever seen at the Olympics, the supposed black power salute of Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the medal stand of the 200 meters at the 1968 Games. And we kept coming to a paradox: While Americans continue to criticize civil rights abuses and questionable athletic practices of other countries, they have forgotten that there is one big wrong that needs to be righted on the homefront.

In the mid-1960s, Smith and Carlos were members of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, which was organized by sociologist Harry Edwards and others to draw attention to racism in sports and society. One of their priorities was pressuring the International Olympic Committee to bar South Africa for its apartheid policies, which it subsequently did. The group’s members weren’t just blacks—the late Australian runner Peter Norman, who finished second in the 200, was one of many white athletes who wore the group’s pin.

There was talk of a boycott of the ’68 Olympics by African-American athletes. It never happened, although some stars, such as the All-America basketball player Lew Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) staged a silent protest by refusing to try out for the Olympic team. For his part, Smith decided that if he won the 200 meters—and he did, in 19.83 seconds, a world record that stood for 11 years—he would make his own statement.

A few minutes before the medal presentation, Payton Jordan, the head coach of the track and field team, and sprint coach Stan Wright approached Bob Paul in the press section. Jordan told Paul that he had given Smith and Carlos permission to wear black socks. Did Paul, the coaches asked, know what was going on? Moments later, Smith, his wife, Carlos and the sportswriter Pete Axthelm walked down the press box aisle, headed for the presentation stage. Did anyone know, Paul asked Jordan, why Mrs. Smith was holding a black glove in each hand?

Avery Brundage, the iron-fisted president of the International Olympic Committee, must also have thought that something was up, as he did not show up to award Smith, Norman and Carlos their medals. “I really didn’t know what I was going to do with the gloves,” Tommie Smith told me in an interview. “I was thinking about wearing both of them but quickly realized that would make no sense.”

Walking toward the stand—his wife had by then handed the gloves to the American runners—he decided to “represent the flag with pride, but do it with a black accent.” Wearing their medals, the two raised clenched, gloved fists as the national anthem was played—Smith his right, Carlos his left. It was done, Smith said, “in military style”—Smith was in the ROTCat the time. “My head was down,” he said, “because I was praying.”

“I wanted to embody my pride and love for what America is supposed to be,” he told me. “There was no hate, no hostility shown or intended. It was not, contrary to how it has been portrayed in the media, intended as a black power salute.”

The next morning, Brundage told Douglas F. Roby, the American committee’s president, that if Smith and Carlos weren’t removed from the team, the entire United States track and field team would be banned from the rest of competition. Roby didn’t dare defy Brundage. He told the two athletes in person that they could keep their medals, but they had to leave the Olympic Village.

Was there any precedent for what Smith and Carlos had done in Mexico City? In 1936, German athletes made the Nazi salute when awarded their medals. Brundage, at the time the president of the USOC, made no objection.

In the years after the Mexico City Olympics, both Smith and Carlos found life difficult. They had trouble finding work. In the late ’70s, Carlos’ wife committed suicide. He blamed the pressure put on him by his Olympic protest. He eventually became a track coach at Palm Springs High School. In 2011 he finally told his story in a book, “The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment That Changed the World.”

Smith, fired from his job at North American Pontiac upon returning from Mexico City, became a track coach, taught sociology at Ohio’s Oberlin College, and was a faculty member at Santa Monica College. His book, “Silent Gesture,” was published in 2007. In 2008 he sent three-time gold-medal-winning track star Usain Bolt a meaningful birthday gift: one of the track shoes he wore in 1968.

In the 41 years since Brundage’s death in 1975, both Smith and Carlos say, they have never gotten so much as a feeler from either the IOC or USOC about reconciliation. Neither has been voted into the American group’s hall of fame, even though by Smith’s count he once held world records in 11 different events.

“I think their attitude is, ‘Why bring it up?’ ” Smith told me. “Why rock the boat now?” But if some conscientious official was looking to right a wrong that grows larger with each passing Olympics, would Smith be open to hearing them out? “I would,” he said, pausing, “take what they say into account. I would listen.”

It’s a shame, then, that as the opening ceremonies for the Summer Games in Rio unroll, Smith and Carlos still wait for an apology.

But this week their alma mater San Jose State University, though not the USOC, recognized their achievements. Both men were smiling as they returned there for a ceremony celebrating the reinstitution of the track program (discontinued 28 years ago), posing beside the statue of them that was erected on the campus in 2005.

The Mercury News caught the spirit of the event:

San Jose State offered the nation a course of healing Monday.
The timing couldn’t have been better.

For the first time since 1960, when SJSU’s Smith and Carlos shook the world with their black-glove salute on the medal stand at the Summer Olympics, the university’s administration has formally embraced the two men. It is reinstating the track and field program that raised Smith, Carlos and many others to Olympic caliber. The celebration Monday [Aug. 1] evoked a new level of inclusion and understanding at the institution that, for nearly a half-century, seemed not to get it.

For Smith and Carlos, this fulfills a lifelong hope that their silent protest be seen not as dishonoring the American flag but as they intended: to raise consciousness about basic human rights. They and many alumni saw dropping the track program in 1988 as an added insult. The inspiring statue of the men that stands on the campus today was conceived by students, who raised the money for it, not the university itself.

It is time for the U.S. Olympic Committee to admit, finally, that Avery Brundage is no longer running the show.