I remember sitting in the living room with my dad, watching the 1968 Olympics, which were taking place in Mexico City. (I was thirteen.) Dad was a track and field man, and loved to see the runners break records. I think I just loved to watch him get excited and yell, “That’s a world record! A world record!”
The 200 meter race was brilliant. Two African American athletes who had trained together at San Jose State took the gold and the bronze, with an Australian taking the silver (to read about the Australian, go here).
We, with many Americans, watched as the winners approached the stand to receive their medals. Smith and Carlos carried their shoes. They bowed their heads for the medals, then turned to face the flag.
Because you are reading this in 2008, you know what happened next—but in 1968, we certainly did not anticipate it. As the National Anthem played and the American flag was raised, Smith and Carlos raised their black-gloved fists and lowered their heads.
Dad was aghast. “Unthinkable!” he said. “Absolutely unthinkable! That’s anti-American! They should be stripped of their medals.”
Many white Americans felt the same way. Neither athlete lost his medal, but both were suspended from the team almost immediately. They came home from Mexico City to hate mail, death threats, and yet more poverty.
This past Sunday, ESPN aired the ESPY awards. The Arthur Ashe Award for Courage went to Tommy Smith and John Carlos. I watched the presentation with my children. When it was rebroadcast, we recorded it on a DVD, which I took today to watch with my father and some siblings. I wondered how my family would feel these many years later.
I asked Dad to tell his memory of that day. He started with, “I was disgusted.” He then went into a history of track and field, the history of the Olympics, and its goals. He reiterated that he thought protests had no place in the Olympics, which should be about unity, teamwork, and individual accomplishment.
We then played the DVD. The narrator (Tom Cruise) talked about the way Smith and Carlos approached the medal stand, and said that they carried their shoes to symbolize the poverty of their youth. Dad whispered, “I didn’t know that.” Teased by the dramatic irony of retrospect, we watched the gloved hands go up. Then we heard from Tommy Smith and John Carlos, forty years older. Smith spoke first, after a prolonged standing ovation. “I feel glorious love here tonight,” he said. He went on to describe his upraised fist as “a prayer.” He spoke as eloquently about equality and hope as my father had just spoken about the goals of the Olympics. Dad applauded several times during the acceptance speeches of both men.
So had Dad changed his mind?
He had lost none of his ideals for the Olympic games. But, he said, he hadn’t fully understood what the athletes had MEANT by their actions. A prayer? A protest AND a prayer. They had meant it for good, and had staked their careers on the message it would send. And though they were booed as they left the medal stand, the poster of that protest is one of the most enduring images of the Civil Rights Movement, and perhaps the most energizing.
In the semiotics of protest, one community will interpret a sign far differently than another. There are many implications in that. If, in 1968, we had KNOWN all that they meant, would we have supported their protest? Probably not—at least not in Utah. If we had been black, would we have supported it? The answer is clear: YES! With a standing ovation. We would have felt empowered, vindicated, victorious, and beautiful.
(I wonder how many black homes in 1968 had viewers on their feet applauding, while whites in other places booed.)
In Remember the Titans, a white football player stares with contempt at the poster a black football player has just put up. The poster depicts those great athletes with bowed heads and raised fists. The black player gives a threatening look and says, “That’s staying up.”
Forty years later, I look back on the moment with considerable awe for Smith and Carlos. And yet I share my father’s ideals for the Olympics, and honestly hope that “Free Tibet”—as worthy a cause as it is—does not overshadow “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.” And God help us, let there never again be another “Black September” protest, where athletes become the pawns of terror.
There is a statue of Smith and Carlos at San Jose State. I intend to visit it someday. I know my children would like to come. They have watched the DVD of the race and the protest over and over. They will honor the names which my generation—the white segment of us—generally disregarded and maligned. That is the legacy of hope, and the evidence of change.