50th Anniversary of black power salute offers lessons for today’s athletes

SHARE 50th Anniversary of black power salute offers lessons for today’s athletes

This file photo taken on October 16, 1968 shows US athletes Tommie Smith (C) and John Carlos (R) raising their gloved fists in the Black Power salute to express their opposition to racism in the US during the their national anthem, after receiving their medals for first and third place along with second-placed Peter Norman (L) of Australia, in the men’s 200m event at the Mexico Olympic Games. | Sun-Times file photo

If history has taught us anything about activism, it is that it costs — a lot.

Some activists lost their lives. Some sacrificed careers. All were ridiculed and vilified by forces in high places.

When then NFL player Colin Kaepernick decided not to stand during the playing of the national anthem in 2016 to protest the police-involved fatal shootings of young black males across America, he received death threats.

This week marks the 50th Anniversary of the most recognizable silent protest by an athlete. The black power salute by U.S. sprinters and medal winners Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City is an iconic image that was broadcast around the world.

But it is what happened after they raised their fists that give the true picture of what black activism looks like.

On Saturday, Oct. 20, Carlos will be in Chicago to tell his story at the “Raise a Fist. Take a Knee” event being hosted by Friends of Track and Field, a Chicago non-profit that pushed for the construction of an indoor track and field facility on the South Side.

A copy of “The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment that Changed the World” is included with the $30 entry fee.

“The actions of Smith and Carlos shook up the world and continue to resonate,” said Conrad Worrill, emeritus director of the Jacob H. Carruthers Center for Inner City Studies at Northeastern Illinois University, and co-founder of Friends of Track and Field.

“What they did during the medal ceremony laid the foundation for other actions on the part of athletes and opened the door in many arenas,” he said.

Smith had won gold and Carlos bronze in the 200-meter dash. The photograph captured a moment of resistance at a time when America was roiled in turmoil, brought about by the Vietnam War, civil unrest, and the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and President John F. Kennedy. Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated four months before the Olympic games.

Interviews revealed Carlos and Smith had a well thought-out plan to bring attention to the injustices blacks were suffering in the U.S.

A year prior, the idea of boycotting the Olympics became a part of the discussion at San Jose State where Carlos and Smith were track and field athletes, Worrill told me.

Led by Harry Edwards, the acclaimed sociologist and civil rights activist, the pair created an organization called the Olympics Human Rights Project.

“There had been a tradition of athletes who were activists, like Paul Robeson, Jackie Robinson, Curt Flood and Muhammad Ali. [Carlos and Smith] come out of a rich tradition of athletes that have taken a stand, challenging racism in general and specifically in sports and athletic competition,” Worrill said.

Flood, who played 15 seasons in Major League Baseball, was an All-Star for three seasons.

He challenged the league’s reserve clause that gave teams total control of a player’s career. His fight went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. After Flood lost his lawsuit, he never played in the major leagues again.

But his activism led to the Curt Flood Act of 1998 that stopped owners from having complete control of players’ contracts and careers.

Carlos, 73, lives in Atlanta.

“He’s been a friend for many years. We’ve worked together on various human rights projects as it relates to sports and athletes around the world,” Worrill said.

Because of their black power salute, Carlos and Smith were asked to leave the Olympics and were suspended from the U.S Track team.

“They were what we called ‘whitelisted’ from being able to earn a living for years, and they were targeted as people that were rabble-rousers and should not be dealt with,” Worrill told me.

“It has only been in recent years that what they did has been acknowledged as one of the great actions of athletes at that level in the world,” he said.

The event takes place from 4-5:30 p.m. Saturday at Parkway Ballroom, 4455 South King Drive. For further information click here

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