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Carlos and Smith symbolized the gratification of doing the right thing

Tommie Smith and John Carlos protest during the 1968 Olympics

It was 55 years ago this week when Tommie Smith and John Carlos decided to be revolutionary. Winners of gold and bronze medals in the Mexico City Olympics, they staged a protest from the victor’s podium that would never be forgotten.

The two students from San Jose State University stood shoeless on the platform in violation of protocol to signal support for America’s impoverished. Breaking another rule, they wore unzipped jackets as a show of solidarity with labor.

As the National Anthem began playing, the two hoisted straight in the air wearing black gloves to articulate the plight of Black Americans during that tumultuous decade. There was a collective gasp heard around the world at the sight of their dramatic rage.

They also wore a black scarf and beads as a statement of Black power and in opposition to lynchings and police brutality against Blacks. They had earlier been urged to boycott the Summer Olympics and stated these objectionable circumstances as the reasons. What they opted to do instead was much more powerful.

Reactions from game officials were swift and severe. Both Smith and Carlos were immediately stripped of their medals, forced out of Olympic Village and barred from any future competitions at the world level. And that would only be the start of repercussions.

Smith and Carlos were largely ostracized by the U.S. sporting establishment and were subject to criticism. Time magazine on October 25, 1968, wrote that while faster, higher and stronger were the motto of the Olympics, Carlos and Smith were “angrier, nastier and uglier.”

Back home, both Smith and Carlos were subject to abuse, and they and their families received death threats. Brent Musburger, a writer for the Chicago American before rising to prominence at CBS Sports and ESPN, described Smith and Carlos as “a couple of Black-skinned storm troopers,” who were “ignoble,” “juvenile” and “unimaginative.”

Much like the United States did an about face on Muhammad Ali, history proved that their act was one of tremendous courage and fortitude. They were eventually given some of the most prestigious awards in sports, and are regulars on the speaking circuit around the country.

Even in 1968, imprisoned South African leader Nelson Mandela was so impressed with their heroic act that he put the famous poster of them standing clinched fist on the podium on the wall of his jail cell. Throughout the nation, young Americans view that iconic photo with the same reference and respect.

That poster hung on my wall at McNutt quad during my freshman year at Indiana University in Bloomington. It reflected the militancy and consciousness of the Black collegiate of the 60s and 70s.

It was an awesome experience when three decades later I would meet them and be their primary contact throughout their week-long visit to Indianapolis to be honored by the Indiana Black Expo. They recounted the experience that symbolized courage for many, even today.

Carlos and Smith stood tall and paid a price. But consistent with the words of Dr. King, their ultimate global praise and honors verified that God will make your enemies your footstools and “truth crushed to earth will rise again.”


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