Tommie Smith and John Carlos made headlines and history at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City when they raised their gloved fists to the sky in what has become known as the “Black Power” salute to protest racial injustice against blacks.
For their brave action, they were subsequently dismissed from the team. They were also abused and hurled with death threats back in the United States.
Fast forward 2019, the U.S. Olympic Committee looks to atone for its wrongdoing after it announced that the duo are set to be inducted into the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Hall of Fame on November 1 for their “character, conduct and off-field contributions,” according to USA TODAY.
“It sends the message that maybe we had to go back in time and make some conscious decisions about whether we were right or wrong,” Carlos told USA TODAY Sports.
“They’ve come to the conclusion that, ‘Hey man, we were wrong. We were off-base in terms of humanity relative to the human rights era.’ ”
Smith and Carlos’ “Black Power” salute is regarded as one of the most iconic moments in black history in the United States.
On the morning of October 16, track athlete Smith won the 200m race, setting a world record of 19.83 seconds. Australia’s Peter Norman came in second, with Carlos coming in at third. As custom, the three athletes went to the podium to accept their medals.
Smith and Carlos did not wear shoes on the podium. Instead, they wore black socks to represent Black poverty. Smith also wore a black scarf to highlight Black pride.
Carlos unzipped his track jacket to show solidarity with working-class people in the United States. He also wore a beaded necklace, which he says was in honour of individuals who were slain in lynchings and others killed in violent ways at the hands of white people.
Carlos also said the beads represented slaves who were thrown overboard during the Middle Passage journey.
All three athletes were shown wearing Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) badges. The OPHR was an organization started by notable Black sociologist Harry Edwards, who stood up against racial segregation in America and worldwide.
The OPHR was mostly focused on South Africa’s racist practice of Apartheid.
Dr. Edwards wanted all Black athletes to boycott the games, but it was said that he was able to influence Smith and Carlos to perform their act.
The Black Power photo was taken by John Dominis and still resonates heavily to this day. Smith says that the raised fists were not a Black Power gesture but a “Human Rights” salute.
After the two were sidelined, Smith found success as a professional football player with the NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals and later became an assistant professor of physical education at Oberlin College.
Smith also worked as a coach for the United States track team, and now works as a public speaker.
Carlos, on the other hand, played for the NFL, starring for the Philadelphia Eagles before an injury ended his career early. Carlos fell on tough times, but he was able to get himself back on track and worked as a coach for Palm Springs High School in California.
Unfortunately, Norman was blasted by Australian media for his support of Smith and Carlos and was banned from the national team despite qualifying many times over. Smith and Carlos were pallbearers at Norman’s 2006 funeral.