by Philip Ferguson
Today, October 16, marks the 45th anniversary of one of the smallest but most dramatic protests of the 1960s, the clenched fist salute on the 200 metres victory dais at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. To understand what happened and why it became so famous, some context is necessary.
1968 was a year of rebellions across the face of the globe. In January 1968, the Vietnamese liberation forces struck hard against the US-led occupation forces and Washington’s puppet regime in Saigon, launching the Tet Offensive.
Early in the year events began in Czechoslovakia which led to the ‘Prague Spring’. A radical student movement, demanding more democracy and equality, emerged in Yugoslavia. In France, students and workers shook the French capitalist establishment to its core in May and June. Students rebelled in Italy, and workers; struggles increased there too.
Even in sleepy New Zealand, the workers’ movement stirred back into life after 17 quiet years following the defeat of the wharfies and their allies in 1951. The nil general wage order of that year resulted in significant workers’ protests here, while student radicalism began to stir as well.
In Latin America, students, workers and peasants fought against repressive regimes and faced torture, death and imprisonment at the hands of these regimes, including in Mexico itself (see here).
In the United States, 1967 had seen the first sizable US casualties in the Vietnam War and the movement against the war was growing on the campuses, on the streets, in workplaces and in ghettos and barrios across the country. While some significant civil rights legislation had been won as a result of mass demonstrations and direct action – the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – the mass of black Americans remained on the receiving end of substantial institutionalised racism, including in sport. Ghetto rebellions had grown since the 1965 Watts revolt in Los Angeles, and were by 1968 a regular part of life in the United States, with a particularly large revolt in Newark in 1967. By 1968 the Capitol building in Washington had a mounted machine-gun post on it.
In Australia, students and workers were stirring again. Workplace issues, the Vietnam War, the nature of campus courses and authority, and issues of Aboriginal rights were coming to the fore. The situation of Aboriginals was, if anything, even worse than that of blacks in the United States. Not surprisingly, some of the tactics of the US civil rights movement began to be deployed across the ditch, for instance freedom rides.
This then was the global situation in which the October Olympics took place in Mexico City in 1968. Of particular relevance to this article is the American and Australian situation, because these led to one of the most dramatic symbolic protests of the 1960s.
Among black American athletes, who faced segregation within their own sports within the US, including within the overall US team at the Olympics, there was discussion about boycotting the Olympics. However, most black athletes favoured going in order to win medals and prove their ability, which they saw as strengthening the case for black equality and liberation. Black athletes also discussed staging some kind of symbolic protest at the Games.
On October 16, the 200 metres race took place. It was won by black American athlete Tommie Smith, with another black American athlete, John Carlos, coming third. Australian Peter Norman took out the silver medal. On the victory dais, Smith and Carlos wore black socks, but no shoes, in order to symbolise black poverty in the United States. Smith and Carlos each wore a black glove on their left hand. They were to wear black gloves on each hand, but Carlos forgot his; it was Norman who suggested they each wear a glove on their left hand. Carlos also unzipped his tracksuit jacket to show solidarity with blue-collar workers of all ethnic groups and a set of beads to symbolise blacks who had been thrown off ships while being transported form Africa to America or who had been lynched and subjected to other horrors during slavery and afterwards.
When the US national anthem was being played, Smith and Carlos bowed their heads and gave clenched fist salutes, creating what has been judged the sixth most memorable event of the twentieth century (according to a range of polls). All three athletes wore anti-racist badges provided by the Olympic Project for Human Rights whose founder, Harry Edwards, had originally urged black athletes to boycott the Games.
How the protest came about: racism in America and Australia
Speaking about the protest years later, John Carlos recalled, “It (a protest) was in my head the whole year. We first tried to have a boycott (of the games) but not everyone was down with that plan. A lot of athletes thought that winning medals would supercede or protect them from racism. But even if you won the medal, it ain’t going to save your momma. It ain’t going to save your sister or children. It might give you fifteen minutes of fame, but what about the rest of your life? I’m not saying that they didn’t have the right to follow their dreams, but to me the medal was nothing but the carrot on a stick.
“We wanted the world to know that in Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, South Central Los Angeles, Chicago, that people were still walking back and forth in poverty without even the necessary clothes to live. The beads were for those individuals that were lynched, or killed that no-one said a prayer for, that were hung and tarred. It was for those thrown off the side of the boats in the middle passage. We were trying to wake the country up and wake the world up to.“
Tommie Smith had also been influenced by Harry Edwards while at San Jose University. Issues like racist segregation in campus fraternities, even in ‘liberal’ California, impacted on Smith as did Edwards’ course on sports sociology, in which Edwards argued that a racist society bred racist sports. Smith was also involved in a relationship with white sprinter and fellow Edwards’ student Linda Huey, while inter-racial marriages were still illegal in many states. Fellow athlete and close friend Lee Evans, along with Smith part of the basis of the ‘Speed City’ team at San Jose, had grown up picking cotton. San Jose was quite close to Oakland, the initial base of the Black Panthers, and Evans and some others began attending Panther meetings.
In an interview in Japan during the World University Games, Smith asked why black athletes should win victories for the United States and then return home to face denial of basic rights. The 200 metres victory in Mexico gave Smith and Carlos the chance to make an effective statement. In the athletes’ lounge, getting ready for the victory ceremony, Smith and Carlos included silver medallist Peter Norman in the discussion.
Norman would later say, “I couldn’t see why a black man wasn’t allowed to drink out of the same water fountain or sit in the same bus or go to the same schools as a white guy. That was just social injustice that I couldn’t do anything about from where I was, but I certainly abhorred it.” The 1968 Olympics gave him the chance to help draw international attention to the position of black Americans. “I did the only thing I believed was right,” Norman told Washington Post sports columnist Dave Wise in October 2006. “I asked what they wanted me to do to help.” Norman was also well aware that in Australia, Aboriginals had not been able to vote until 1962 and only began to be counted in the census the year before the Mexico Olympics.
The racist establishment of the time reacted to the dais protest immediately. This included the head of the International Olympic Committee, Avery Brundage. Brundage had a reputation for racism. He belonged to a country club that officially banned blacks and Jews from membership. In 1934 he helped Hitler get Berlin as the site for the 1936 Olympics and was rewarded by the German government who gave his company the contract to build a new German embassy in the United States. had been a staunch advocate of the US team attending Hitler’s Berlin Olympics. While Brundage had made no criticism of the copious amounts of Nazi salutes featured at the Berlin Olympics, he objected strongly to the clenched fist salutes of Smith and Carlos and he ordered them suspended from the US team and banned from the Olympic Village. The US Olympic Committee initially rejected Brundage’s demand, but gave way when he threatened to suspend the entire US track team. As a result, the two runners were expelled from the Games and stripped of their medals.
In the United States, they came under attack from both reactionaries and liberals. Their athletic careers were essentially over, although both played for the NFL for a while and ended up coaching athletics. Peter Norman met a similar fate in Australia. He was attacked by the Australian Olympic authorities, the government and the media. Despite being one of the fastest 200 metres runners in the world in 1972, he was never going to get selected for the Australian team. In fact, the Australian Olympic selectors went to incredible lengths – because excluding him from an Australian track team would have been on obvious measure of political discrimination, they didn’t send any sprinters to the 1972 Olympics at all, the only time the Australian Olympic authorities have ever done this!
From outcasts to honourees
In 2000, when the Olympics took place in Sydney, the Australian Olympics authorities excluded Norman from the ceremonies, but the Americans invited him.
When Norman died in October 2006, Carlos and Smith were among the pall-bearers at his funeral.
“I was his brother. He was my brother,” Carlos said on hearing of Norman’s death. “Any other white guy, I don’t think he would have had the courage to go through with it. Our lives were threatened. We were being demonized in the media. People were saying we wanted the destruction of society instead of what we really wanted, equal rights. I just don’t think most white individuals would not have been strong enough to make that commitment.
“At least me and Tommie had each other when we came home. When Peter went home, he had to deal with a nation by himself. He never wavered, never denied that he was up there with us for a purpose and he never said ‘I’m sorry’ for his involvement. That’s indicative of who the man was.”
The US Track and Field Federation even proclaimed the Australian athlete’s funeral day “Peter Norman Day”.
In the documentary Salute, made by Norman’s nephew Matt in 2008 (and screened earlier this year on Maori TV), Smith and Carlos talk movingly about this young white Australian who had completely supported them, at considerable cost to himself. The film features footage of Norman himself talking about his early hostility to the ‘White Australia’ policy and to discrimination against Aboriginals. In 2012 Carlos would declare, “There’s no-one in the nation of Australia that should be honoured, recognised, appreciated more than Peter Norman for his humanitarian concerns, his character, his strength and his willingness to be a sacrificial lamb for justice.”
Although they were outcasts at the time, their stand has won much respect over the years. For instance, Akaash Maharaj, the head of Canada’s Olympic Equestrian team, said in a 2011 speech, “In that moment, Tommie Smith, Peter Norman, and John Carlos became the living embodiments of Olympic idealism. Ever since, they have been inspirations to generations of athletes like myself, who can only aspire to their example of putting principle before personal interest. It was their misfortune to be far greater human beings than the leaders of the IOC of the day.”
In 1998 Smith and Carlos were officially honoured in the US for the stand they took. Perhaps the most fitting memorial to Norman is a mural in a largely Aboriginal area in Sydney. It is a painting of the famous photo and is captioned “three proud men”
Check out the documentary below, a fascinating account of the lead-up to the protest, the fallout, and the long-term impact and the honouring of these courageous athletes.