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.”