Archive | May, 2008

The 1968 Olympic Protest 40 Years Later: Smith, Carlos and Edwards Reflect on Black Power Salute

20 May


By Chris Murray

For the Chris Murray Report

The University of Pennsylvania students who attended the Race and Sports Lecture at Jon Huntsman Hall last April 24 were not born the day Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in the Black power salute on the medal stand at the 1968 Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City.

And yet many of them wore the image of one of the most enduring symbols of turbulent 1960s on their tee shirts. Some of the students even brought their posters of Smith and Carlos’ protest on the medal stand.

At a recent forum sponsored by the Wharton School of Business and the Center for Africana Studies, Smith, Carlos and Dr. Harry Edwards talked about the 40th anniversary of their protest at the 1968 Olympics and the events leading up to the protest.

In what was one of the rare times that the three organizers of the Olympic Project for Human Rights have come together to discuss their historic protest. Edwards said the activism of athletes in the 1960s that culminated in the Smith-Carlos Black power salute and other events of those times transformed the face of American sports.

“From 1960 until Curt Flood challenged the reserve clause in baseball-1972, 1973, 1974, the 15-year period marked an era in American sport that changed the substance and face of sport in this society,” Edwards said. “It changed how we look at sports and how we defined sports.

“Over that era, you had Muhammad Ali, who was really the godfather of the revolt of the Black athlete, Jim Brown, Bill Russell, Arthur Ashe, Tommie Smith, John Carlos, Curt Flood and then in some instances entire teams like the University of Wyoming football team which refused to play because of a lack of Black coaches and a lack of support for Black athletes on campus.”

Edwards said the 1960s generation of Black athletes succeeded and challenged the previous generation of Black athletes like Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson, who were fighting for access onto the playing field of American sport. He said the generation they came along in the 1960s demanded access, respect and dignity at a time when the Civil Rights was becoming more militant.

“You had all of these extraordinarily courageous, insightful, intelligent, informed, committed and inspired Black athletes,” Edwards said. “It was a phenomenal era. That was the context in which the Olympic Project for Human Rights took place.”

During the forum, both Smith and Carlos discussed their personal backgrounds and how they came involved in the Olympic Project for Human Rights and how they met Edwards when they were students at San Jose State.

Smith grew up in the rural San Joaquin valley of California where he, his 11 brothers and sisters, and his father picked cotton on the farms. Carlos was raised in Harlem in New York and witnessed the plight of African-Americans in the urban areas. Both athletes grew up in a world where Black people were economically and politically deprived.

Both athletes came into contact with Edwards at San Jose State and got involved with the Olympic Project for Human Rights, which initially started as a campaign by Black athletes to boycott the 1968 Olympics.

When it became apparent that not all of the Black athletes were willing to participate in an organized boycott of the games for various reasons—some of which included expulsion for athletes who attend historically Black colleges and universities and court martial for athletes in the military—the athletes came up with their own individual expressions.

Carlos said the thing that inspired him on the medal stand was a conversation he had with Martin Luther King, who was supportive of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, in New York several months before the games and shortly before Dr. King’s death.

“When Dr. King died he didn’t get a chance to express to the world how he felt about the boycott,” Carlos said. “I remember distinctly asking Dr. King, ‘if people said they’re going to kill you, why would you go to Memphis?’ and he said to me, ‘John, I have to go back and stand for those who won’t stand for themselves and for those who can’t stand for themselves.

“That galvanized in my brain when I was on the victory stand, that’s exactly what I was doing standing for those who wouldn’t stand for themselves and those who couldn’t stand for themselves.”

Smith, who not only won the gold medal, but set a world record in the process, said he felt a sense of fear during the playing of the national anthem, but also realized that he had a higher mission.

“That was the longest national anthem on any planet, my prayer was short,” Smith said. “Of course, I was afraid, I was terrified, but I was a on a mission from a non-secular situation which I claim even today. I believed I was saved because of my belief for others, not necessarily myself, because I am vessel to be used for the betterment of human kind.”

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Clinton versus Obama: Southern Strategy Redux

4 May

By Chris Murray

For the Chris Murray Report

My observation of Sen. Hillary Clinton’s recent campaign and ultimate victory over Sen. Barack Obama in the Pennsylvania primary reminded me of an ugly tradition that has guided American politics for the last 40 years.

What was striking to me about Clinton’s campaign in Pennsylvania was that she was able to appeal to working class, blue-collar whites by painting Obama as an elitist who didn’t understand their issues and basically characterized him as the Black candidate.

One of Clinton’s most fervent supporters—Pennsylvania governor—Ed Rendell really made it clear when he said working class whites in the state outside of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh would never vote for a Black man as president. The Clinton campaign seized upon that and the results of the election indicated that she won a substantial number of working class whites.

For the remainder of this campaign, Clinton will use that time honored strategy—made famous by Republicans like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan—copied by the Democratic Leadership Council—The Southern Strategy—playing upon the fears and prejudices of white working class in both the North and the South. It has been the ultimate trump card that the Republicans have used to keep itself in power for all these years and now it is being used by a Democratic candidate for president to save her struggling campaign.

As Lee Atwater, who ran George H.W. Bush’s campaign, used the specter of the Willie Horton ad as a way scaring Southern whites and working class whites in the North and Midwest into seeing Michael Dukakis as a candidate too liberal for America, the Clinton campaign is using Obama’s old pastor Jeremiah White and his controversial commentary that condemned America for its racism at home and abroad as a way of telling white voters they should be very afraid of putting a Black man in the White House.

Oddly enough, it has been the Democratic Party’s failure over the last 40 years to make its poor and working class white constituents understand that the gains that African-Americans received through the Civil Rights Act and through programs like welfare (which actually benefited poor whites) and Affirmative Action did not come at their expense.

Additionally, the Democratic Party over the last 40-years failed to clearly make their working class white constituents understand that African-Americans have the same issues that they have in terms of the economy, affordable housing and education.

For example, when corporations shipped jobs overseas in the 1980s, Black and white workers were screwed in the process. White workers—poor and middle class still supported the Republican Party even when they acted against their own interests. Republican advocacy of “traditional” values became a code word for protecting the interests of Southern and working class whites. That is the sad legacy of the Southern Strategy.

With Clinton’s campaign trying to play catch up to Obama in the delegate count, the old Southern Strategy laced with the assumption that whites will not vote for a Black candidate over a Republican candidate in a national election is her last hope.

When President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Bill of 1964, he made the remark that he had delivered the South to the Republicans for years to come. The man who created the Great Society was partially correct—he didn’t see forsee working class and poor whites in the North would also abandon a Democratic Party they thought put the interests of African-Americans ahead of so-called “hardworking” whites.

In 1968, Richard Nixon appealed to those fears of whites in the industrial North and the South against the backdrop of riots in the cities, Vietnam War protests and the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. He won a narrow election in 1968 over Hubert H. Humphrey, getting most of his support from Southern whites and Northern working class, blue collar whites-who thought the Democratic Party’s advocacy for improving the lot of African-Americans, through programs such as Affirmative Action, busing, and welfare would come at their expense.

Throughout the 1968 campaign, Nixon used code words like “law and order,” “government interference” and “states rights” to win working class whites and Southerners, who felt that the Democratic Party had abandoned their interest by tying itself to civil rights.

Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” would ultimately serve as the blue print for building what is now a solid Republican base in the South. Ronald Reagan (George H.W. Bush after him) seized upon this in the 1980s winning blue-collars working class whites in the Northeast who became popularly known as “Reagan Democrats.”

In the 1980s under Reagan and Bush, characterizations of the “Black welfare queen and the infamous Willie Horton ad further exploited the fears of whites and kept the White House in the hands of Republicans. Even as blue-collar jobs in the North and the South were moving overseas and small white family-owned farms were being foreclosed on and gobbled up by big corporations in the Midwest, working class and poor whites saw the Republican Party as the protector of their rights and values.

As the Republicans and the Right painted the Democratic Party as the haven for Black advancement at white expense, radical feminists, whacko environmentalists, gay activists, peaceniks, the Democrats adopted a strategy to win back those white voters both in the North and the South.

And that’s where Al From and the Democratic Leadership Council come in. It was formed in 1985 to move the Democratic Party from its traditional base of African-Americans, women and environmentalists to a more centrist or outright conservative stance. Some people have called them, “Republican Light.”

As the Democratic candidate for president and member of the DLC, Bill Clinton boldly declared his independence from the so-called liberal base or what is perceived to be the Jesse Jackson/African-American wing when he sharply criticized rapper Sistah Souljah for remarks she made after the Rodney King riots in 1992.

Many observers and pundits felt that Clinton had done a good job of putting the Jesse Jackson crowd in their place. It was as if he was saying  “don’t worry Southerners and working class ethnic whites in the North, hey I got your back and I’m one of you.”

So instead of trying to beat the Republicans by showing that white and Black workers have a whole lot  more in common, the Democrats joined the Republicans by playing the same game of pandering to white voters fears.

If you don’t believe me, look at Hillary Clinton’s campaign against Obama, especially in Pennsylvania. It tells you everything you need to know.