It was expected that Americans would dominate the track at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. Indeed, when the men’s 200-meter began, American Tommie Smith led the pack, sprinting ahead to take gold. Heading into the home stretch, it looked as if teammate and world-record holder John Carlos would win silver, but Australian Peter Norman edged him out, bounding down the straightaway to take silver and leaving Carlos with bronze. But it’s what happened next that would make history.
Smith and Carlos stood on the podium wearing black socks without shoes to symbolize black poverty in the U.S. Carlos wore a strand of colorful beads to protest lynching. They bowed their heads as The Star Spangled Banner played, and raised their fists — clad in black leather gloves — in salutes to Black Power and unity. It was a gesture seen ‘round the world, and an enduring symbol of political resistance.
This fleeting moment, though, came out of the deep-rooted struggle for racial equality gripping America. Smith and Carlos had been part of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, which, founded in 1967, had originally called upon black athletes to boycott the Summer Games. The movement’s mission statement asked, “Why should we run in Mexico only to crawl home?” Ultimately the group decided against the boycott, but Smith and Carlos embodied their message of protest. Australian Peter Norman wore an OPHR patch on his jacket during the ceremony as a symbol of solidarity.
In a 2008 op-ed for the L.A. Times, basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who had been asked to try out for the ’68 Olympic basketball team, described what watching that moment meant. “Whites were outraged, blacks felt some rush of pride,” he wrote.
Carlos, who would go on to equal the world record in the 100-meter, win an NCAA championship title and even play a short stint in the NFL, spoke in Chicago this year. Speaking to an audience of young poets and activists, he said that now, when asked by photographers to raise his fist for the camera, he instead instructs them to find a young person to photograph. “Let some young man or woman raise their fist,” he said. “I want them to see that we’ve moved on to the next generation.”
Sadly, though, as we move into the start of the 2012 Summer Olympic Games 44 years later, Carlos says he thinks black athletes are still mistreated. He shares some of the indignities he suffered in the audio above.
Dynamic Range showcases hidden gems unearthed from Chicago Amplified’s vast archive of public events and appears on weekends. John Carlos spoke at an event presented by Young Chicago Authors in February. Click here to hear the event in its entirety.