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How the Black Power Protest at the 1968 Olympics Killed Careers

February 22, 2018 in History

By Erin Blakemore

Mexico City police beating a protester during a student march days before the military gunned down hundreds of students during a similiar peaceful march at Tlatelolco Plaza in Mexico City. (Credit: AP Photo)

It’s an iconic image: Two athletes raise their fists on the Olympic podium. The photograph, taken after the 200 meter race at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, turned African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos from track-and-field stars into the center of a roiling controversy over their raised-fist salute, a symbol of black power and the human rights movement at large.

But look in the photo and you’ll see another man as well: silver medalist Peter Norman, a white Australian runner. Norman didn’t raise his fist that day, but he stood with Smith and Carlos. Though his show of solidarity ended up destroying Norman’s career, the three athletes’ actions that day would be just one in a line of protests on the athletic stage.

Smith and Carlos, who had won gold and bronze, respectively, agreed to use their medal wins as an opportunity to highlight the social issues roiling the United States at the time. Racial tensions were at a height, and the Civil Rights movement had given way to the Black Power movement. African-Americans like Smith and Carlos were frustrated by what they saw as the passive nature of the Civil Rights movement. They sought out active forms of protests and advocated for racial pride, black nationalism and dramatic action rather than incremental change.

It was only months after the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and protests against the Vietnam War were gaining steam as well. In the lead-up to the Olympics, Smith and Carlos helped organize the Olympic Project for Human Rights, a group that reflected their black pride and social consciousness. The group saw the Olympic Games as an opportunity to agitate for better treatment of black athletes and black people around the world. Its demands included hiring more black coaches and rescinding Olympic invitations to Rhodesia and South Africa, both of which practiced apartheid. Though the project initially proposed a boycott of the Olympics altogether, Smith and Carlos decided to compete in the hopes they could use their achievements as a platform for broader change.

Mexico City police beating a protester during a student march days before the military gunned down …read more


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