Mexico Olympics – 1968

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.

July_2008_1968_olympic_protest 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.


  1. anonymous this time says:

    Ugh. Revisionist history at its worst. They say now it was a prayer; in 1968 it was a “prayer” for black supremacy, not equality; for separatism, not unity; for narrow political goals for a narrow slice of Americans, not America, not sportsmanship, not humane behavior.


  2. John Mansfield says:

    A raised fist as a gesture of prayer? I hope no one tells my ward’s priests’ quorum about this one.

  3. I haven’t studied the issue and can’t comment on the accuracy comment #1. But I found your post to be moving, Margaret, and I know for certain that actions once viewed as offensive can be later viewed with love and honor with a healthy does of charity and perspective.

  4. I agree with #1–if they want to say it was a protest against what they felt was an unjust system, well, they should just say that. They’re classifying it as a prayer is ludicrous.

  5. They’re classifying it as a prayer is ludicrous.

    Why? and why the anonymity?

  6. J., I agree — it’s not great to use anonymity just because your comments might be unpopular.

  7. Aaron Brown says:

    The only occasions that justify commenter anonymity, in my mind, are: (1) discussing explicit sexual experiences without wanting to embarrass one’s spouse; or (2) “outing” onself temporarily, for purposes of a comment, without wanting to leave the closet in a permanent way. (I’ve seen both, other the years). Pseudonymity is, of course, totally different …

    So what sorts of prayers/protests do we expect to see in Beijing this year? Any predictions?


  8. John Mansfield says:

    Spinning wheels, of course.

  9. anonymous this time says:

    I am a coward. I can live with that.

  10. I had just turned 14 years old six weeks before the games began (the Mexico City Olympics began October 12 (symbolism, anyone?)), but we had no television and I didn’t see the image until the next day’s paper.

    I don’t remember its being a topic of conversation at our dinner table.

    But, the upraised fist was generally understood to be a symbol of the black power movement. Messrs. Carlos and Smith are free to put whatever meaning they want to that symbol (both in 1968 and in 2008), but once they’ve “published” it, the meaning that the rest of the world infers from it is out of their hands.

  11. Spinnin’ wheel
    Got to go round.

  12. James McMurray says:

    It is ironic that those critical of a display of conviction in front of millions can’t seem to personally stand behind their opinions on blog that might be read by thousands (if that).

    Don’t misunderstand, I’m not hating on the argument itself (I don’t have a highly informed opinion about it), just the anonymity. Weak.

  13. Kevin Barney says:

    I subscribe to Sports Illustrated, and recently they ran a very interesting “where are they now?” piece on John Carlos, which I found on their website here.

    I was interested to learn that Carlos and Smith have long been estranged from each other.

  14. Bruce Johns says:

    That was an ugly gesture of racial supremacy then, as it would be now.
    As a fundamentalist, I’ll stay with the teachings of the man who holds the keys to this dispensation when considering the black race.

  15. You mean Joseph Smith, Bruce? I’ll stay with his teachings as well; that is, those of African decent should be given the priesthood and that with similar opportunities they achieve equal to those of European decent.

  16. Last Lemming says:

    I think some of us are still misunderstanding. This being a religion-oriented blog, we are inclined to interpret “prayer” in a religious context. But it has a nonreligious context too. My dictionary also defines it as “an earnest request.” So the protest was not just an act of defiance meant to piss us all off, but a request to pay attention to and fix the problems they were trying to address.

    The whole thing kind of bounced off of me. I don’t remember if I saw it live or just in replays, but it neither angered nor inspired me. I was much more interested in Bob Beamon and Jim Ryun. But I was eleven.

    As for the Olympics, they are inherently political and it is naive to expect them to be otherwise. If you seriously want a pure sporting event, you need to do the following:

    1. Have the games at a fixed location, so that the aspect of the host’s bragging rights is eliminated.

    2. Eliminate national teams and invite the best athletes to compete regardless of where they are from. This means no opening ceremonies with national delegations marching in behind their flags, no national anthems of the gold-medal winning countries, unmarked uniforms, and no medal counts.

    Of course, nobody would watch. You might as well take the wrecks out of NASCAR races.

  17. But who can stand watching NBC screwing up the games one more time, anyway?

    Too much talk, too much “human interest,” way too much Bob Costas, too much figure skating and gymnastics, not enough people who have the first clue of how to pronounce “Nagano” and not enough sport.

    We should all do a Carter and boycott the games. Until NBC is fired, or gets it right.

    End of threadjack.

  18. Bruce prefers that ugly gestures of racial supremacy only come from white people.

    Evans, ban that man.

  19. Bruce’s comment speaks for itself: it’s not everyday you get someone who’s not only racist, but a fundamentalist racist. I would have thought that fundamentalists these days would be trying to make all the friends they can get.

  20. I have pursued mine enemies, and overtaken them: neither did I turn again till they were consumed. I have wounded them that they were not able to rise: they are fallen under my feet. For thou hast girded me with strength unto the battle: thou hast subdued under me those that rose up against me. Thou hast also given me the necks of mine enemies; that I might destroy them that hate me. (Psalm 18)

    Yes, prayers are always about unity, sportsmanship, and humane behavior.

  21. I find the raised fist display during the anthem to be disrespectful in both 1968 and in 2008.

  22. molly bennion says:

    I have such mixed feelings about Olympic protests. When I saw the Thomas/Carlos award ceremony as it happened, I had much more admiration for their protest than I do now that I have known many Olympic athletes. I accompanied my daughter to her two Olympics and shared the agony of her defeat in the first and joy of her victory in the second. Some athletes are pros, very well paid pros, but some are true amateurs sacrificing much for years with little or no financial support and only the hope of satisfaction should they win. (I particularly remember my daughter’s request to buy food for a teammate who had been out of money for weeks and was living on rice. It takes about 5000 daily calories to support an athlete training in her sport.) Of course the games are political, but now I yearn for a decrease in the political. Whatever other causes I may support, I would prefer they not take attention away from the cause of the athletes, some of whom are noticed outside the inner circles of their sports only at the Olympics. With a juicier story to report, the news media will cut the stories on the amateurs and smaller sports, not the stories on the pros.

  23. Margaret, I was born more than a decade too late to recall the event, so I appreciate the post, which I found intelligent and moving. The comments are a truly odd bunch. huh

  24. Wow! I’m a bit surprised by these comments. Many are a tad presumptuous. One of my fundamental points–that white audiences saw the gesture much differently than black audiences–is a little lost in the insistence of what the raised fist REALLY meant. Semiotics. Why would any of us think that WE understood the message of Tommy Smith and John Carlos–and that it was a bad, wrong, and disrespectful message–but that they don’t really understand what it meant (especially given the fact of what they laid on the line)?

    Kevin, John Carlos made a point of addressing the estrangement at the Espy Awards, declaring that he and Smith were “one.” He acknowledged that there had been “competiviness.”

    I was curious about what the responses would be to this post. I knew it was possible that there would be a lot of renewed condemnation for Smith and Carlos. I’m so sad that’s what happened.

    Whoopie Goldberg and Elizabeth Hazelbach got a lot of attention for their comments on “The View” lately, when Whoopie claimed adamently that she and Hazelbach DID live in “different worlds” and then said that her own mother had to pass a test in order to exercise the right to vote. I wonder what else she carries in her memory which Hazelbach does not. I can guess how each would respond to the 1968 poster.

    The concept of “white privilege” is largely academic if you’re white. It’s very personal if you’re black. And black power? In 1968, when Jim Crow was just starting to limp, “black power” was simply asking for an equal playing field.

  25. Thank you Margaret. Count me in with J. as one that found it powerful.

  26. #16–Last Lemming, FYI, Bob Beaman was kicked off his team for protesting BYU. He thus lost his trainer, and worked independently to perfect the long jump. His record held for a couple of decades, I think. I tried to contact Beaman through John Carlos’s foundation so that we could interview him for our documentary. Carlos e-mailed me back with the contact info, but Beaman never responded. But his story is quite something. And of course I remember Jim Ryan as well. Dad had a huge effect on who I watched during the Olympics.

    Molly–fascinating take on the whole thing. I do wonder how Olympic athletes would respond. And it is probably valid to ask if the Smith/Carlos protest set the stage for the travesty at Munich. Hard questions.

  27. Margaret, I remember this 1968 moment. In 1968, I was a Marine, a RM, and a college student. Always..always during this this time..The Buffalo Springfield song “For what it’s worth, ring in my head.

  28. Mark B. says:

    If my first comment sounded presumptuous, I probably risk sounding more that way with another attempt.

    I don’t think I stated what their gesture “really” meant. What I tried to say was that the meaning that each viewer tood from the gesture was, absent an explanation from Messrs Carlos and Smith, outside of their control.

    My fuzzy recollection is that the raised fist was considered to be the black power salute. If Carlos and Smith considered it to be something else, I wonder if they gave an explanation (before the 2008 ESPY awards). If not, how would others who saw them know what they intended, or that they intended something other than “black power.”

    Again, my recollection is that there was a whole spectrum of black “resistance” to segregation and racial discrimination, with nonviolent SCLC and NAACP and the National Urban League on one end and SNCC and Stokely Carmichael and the Nation of Islam and the Black Panthers on the other end. To suggest that “Black Power” was simply a request for an even playing field does not reflect the concerns of many, both black and white, about the radical, sometimes separatist and sometimes violent tendencies of the black power movement. (That the NAACP and other moderates were often accused of being “Uncle Toms” by the radicals suggests that there were intraracial divides that were sometimes deeper than the interracial ones.)

  29. I was too young in 1968 to understand what was happening, but my feelings about the protest whenever I have seen it depicted have always been the same: that it was heartfelt, courageous and important.

    The argument that the Olympic games are not the place for such things strikes me as wrongheaded. We all have to use the stages we have available to us in order to make our speeches. When else were Smith and Carlos going to have such an opprtunity to call attention to injustice? Answer: never again.

  30. Mark B. says:

    “tood” is the really, really past tense of “took”

  31. Nice post. Thank you for sharing it Margaret. I was an infant when this occurred.

    On the Anonymi, “we tolerate dissent, but not stupidity” only goes so far. If someone thinks something wildly different from what the administration and readership of the site feels on a particular issue and if the person feels the viewpoint needs to be shared but the person would rather not be branded for life as a racist/homophobe/imbecile, anonymity is sensible (if cowardly).

  32. I’m sure many of us can think of situations that involve prayer in a way we aren’t used to, such as raising hands above our heads putting hands on the shoulder next to us while we hold a child, or clasping hands with others. Is it so strange that someone else is using a closed fist as a symbol of prayer? It seems very close-minded to assume we know how to pray, and they must have meant something else entirely.

    Or maybe it’s just fear of people that might be different than us, because different is bad.

    Thanks for the post Margaret.

  33. I actually remember the moment on TV, and at the time, as a callow teenager, being a little put off by it. But I’ve seen that picture several times since then, and thought that such a gesture today, though not all that common, would not raise such a fuss. I think we were aware that they were not wearing shoes at the time, but didn’t understand the whole story then. I wonder how little attention their explanations were given at the time by the press. It was, after all, an election year, and a very politically charged one.

    I’m saddened at a couple of the responses here. Maybe we haven’t come as far as I had thought. Thanks for the thought provoking post, Margaret.

  34. anonymous this time says:

    Thank you for acknowledging the sensibility of my cowardly anonymity, given the predictable direction of comments. “We tolerate dissent, but we never forgive” is proposed as a revision.

    Is there any record of statements given by these two athletes AT THE TIME concerning their intentions? We discount 40=year=old tstimonies in controversial Mormon history. Why do you believe what these two men say NOW represents what they intended THEN?

  35. Well, it’s been far too long since I’ve plugged the documentary _Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons_. Here’s a quote from the film by someone who was protesting BYU because of the Church’s priesthood restriction. The footage was filmed in 1968:
    “We risked our education to protest Brigham Young University and the Mormon Church [referring to the priesthood restriction]–that’s how strong we felt about it.”

    Or “You state that you have a set of revelatory beliefs. But the Black does not understand that–but even if he did understand that, he knows that your stand contributes to his condition.”

    I respect those statements. I also respect Darius Gray, who bears his testimony consistently in response to statements like “How can any black man join a racist church like the Mormons?” (I’ve heard that question and Darius’s answer many times now.)

    It is courageous to testify in an antagonistic setting–whether the testimony is political or spiritual. (Caveat: Courage does not always equal wisdom.)

    If there are no statements from Carlos or Smith from 1968 about their protest, we’d have to wonder why. Certainly in 2008, if somebody protests about Human Rights issues in China by rejecting a medal or using some other gesture, they’ll do an interview afterwards, which will be instantly available on You-Tube.

  36. Found this statement, apparently made by Smith at the time:

    “If I win, I am an American, not a black American,” he said. “But if I did something bad, then they would say I am a Negro. We are black and we are proud of being black. Black America will understand what we did tonight.”

  37. I love the Olympics, love America and love track and field. I also love our African-American brothers and sisters. I would suggest that some people consider where and when politics gets in the way of competition. For example, what if an Israeli athlete whose kid was killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber wore an armband of some kind in protest, or what if a Palestinian did the same? We can all sympathize with the plight of our African-American friends (especially in retrospect), but I would submit there is a time and a place for everything (in polite society).

    Protests in front of the White House, sit-ins, non-violent protests to end segregation — I’m definitely there and sympathetic. Political gestures at the Mexico City Olympics? Not really very polite. Doesn’t make my blood boil, but I just don’t think it’s polite and appropriate.

    I would add that I despise the fascist nature of the Chinese government (Free Tibet!), but I really, really hope that the Beijing Olympics concentrate on athletic competition and not on politics.

  38. I sympathize, Geoff, and I love the Olympics too, but I also applaud those who dare to be impolite in pursuit of justice.

  39. The issue is the stage. The Olympics provide a world-wide stage. I believe that the action in 1968 did something significant–even if it wasn’t polite. However, when Marlon Brando had Sacheen Littlefeather take the stage in his place when he won an oscar, and then make a statement of protest about the treatment of Native Americans, it seemed very staged and like something a bored actor would do. Besides that, Brando isn’t Native American.

    Here’s what we see in 2008: The poster of Smith and Carlos has meaning and is still being purchased. I haven’t seen any posters of Sacheen Littlefeather–though her cause was just. She was also booed, btw. But that protest felt created and had no wings. Unless you are as old as I am, you probably haven’t even heard of it outside “Trivial Pursuit.” I seriously wonder how many history books carry a photo of Smith and Carlos, though. It’d be interesting to check it out.

  40. Oh, Brando died. He still isn’t Native American, though.

  41. An October 1968 NY Times article

    Amy Bass’ Not the Triumph But the Struggle cites another contemporary statement made by Smith:

    “The black glove that I wore on my right hand signified the power within black America. The left glove my teammate John Carlos wore on his left hand made an arc with my right hand and his left hand also to signify black unity. The scarf that was worn around my neck signified blackness. John Carlos and me wore socks, black socks, without shoes, to also signify our poverty” (p. 240).

    Bass quotes from comments made by Smith decades later in which he referred to the moment as a “prayer of solidarity (p. 287).

    In a footnote, Bass states that “[i]t is interesting to note the malleability with which Smith gave the symbolism of the gesture. For example, Smith also stated at different points that in addition to blackness the scarf signified dignity and/or lynching” (p. 414 n.138).

  42. I’d hate to think where the civil rights movement would be if everyone was too polite to make people uncomfortable with the the way things were.

    Again, people pray in different ways. Are the people protesting these two athletes actions also upset when an athlete crosses themselves or look to the heavens and say a quick thank you?

  43. Oh, Brando died. He still isn’t Native American, though.

    The question is, has he had his temple work done? That would be one heck of a name to take through.

  44. #28:Mark, I would like to say you mistake the emotions of the “day’. But I can’t. These were confusing times for all. Looking back, we see most blacks followed Martin L. King in peaceful protest(s). But in 1968, we were only 3 years passed the 1965 Watts Riots. We were less clear then where “Black Power” would lead.

  45. Well, MCQ, if you consider Brando your godfather, you could probably do his work (since the Church does insist on some relation to the person one is standing in for). I say GO FOR IT!

  46. Brando is indeed a spiritual ancestor of mine. I got dibs!

  47. There is so much I want to say (SO MUCH), but I can’t find a way to say it lovingly, so I will keep my mouth shut with regard to some of the comments thus far.

    Just to consider:

    I wonder what this conversation would be like if the two athletes had been white Christian athletes in a predominantly Muslim country.

    Thanks, Margaret, for this post.

  48. Thanks for sharing this–since I was born after the event, it is interesting to hear what motivated people’s reaction. I don’t think people of my generation would be similarly outraged. I have often wondered what most Americans even thought was being communicated–I guess that depends on the American.

    I have no reverence for the Olympics and view the athletes’ victories there as their own, not mine just because we share a homeland. I have NO problem with them accepting or not the medals in any way they please. Why the difference? I don’t know.

  49. I wasn’t alive in 1968 and don’t remember ever seeing this picture before. My first thought when seeing it was, “Interesting, the black guys have their heads bowed.” The fists in the air didn’t even register.

    I actually do hope that having the Olympics in China brings focus to a lot of political and environmental issues over there.

  50. Susan, despite my admiration for Smith and Carlos, I genuinely hope that the Olympics in China will be about sports, not politics. Of course, politics are already in the picture, as China has cleared out some of the poorer areas in Beijing to give a prettier picture. And the torch, of course, had a difficult journey to reach its destination.

    So my thinking is paradoxical. I regard the gesture of Smith and Carlos as a great moment in Civil Rights history (and I’ve loved the links provided–especially by Justin #41), but I do not want to see the Olympics become a circus of political complaints–and I think that scenario is a genuine threat.

  51. Wow. Hmmm. This is another time when it would be nice to be young enough to be a bystander. The younger you are, the less responsible you are for anything pertaining to 1968 and the more free you are to recast events in anachronistic terms. I don’t know what excuse people older than me have for that, though.

    Today everybody is used to protest — it’s so pervasive that you have to plan a protest zone for every event that could possibly draw a camera. Salt Lakers think it’s cute when two little girls make signs and “protest” the cost of gasoline, as if they were doing something noble and patriotic and *effective.* We’re also used to popular culture where the highest form of praise is “edgy” or “in your face” and we’re all expected to admire the artistry of graffiti vandalism and the “freedom” of vulgar fashions.

    It wasn’t that way in 1968. Yes, there were protests and sit-ins and riots, but those were all considered radical, even by participants. They were shocking, and meant to shock, and nobody took them for granted.

    That’s the atmosphere when Smith and Carlos made their gesture. Whatever it meant to them, they had to know it would shock and offend and insult a great many people. Maybe you think that’s fine. Maybe it *is* fine. But nobody should pretend it wasn’t shocking and offensive and insulting.

  52. Those who missed 1968, might get a second chance at reflections, if two USA winners embrace, and have a long kiss on the Victory Stand for Gay power during the Anthem.

  53. #47: I did consider your question and have no answer.
    My question: What would have happened if the two Blacks had done this in the rural South in 1940?

  54. 53–If blacks had done this in the rural south’s Olympics in 1940 (or way beyond that), I suspect white people would have been shocked, offended, and insulted.

  55. #54: Well, put in me the white group that was not shocked, offended, or insulted. Only saddened, that what should have been a joyous moment…was lost.

  56. Bob, if the “joyous moment” was really lost, there would have been no standing ovation at Sunday’s ESPY awards. Apparently, the moment was so significant that forty years later, it brought today’s athletes to their feet in tribute.

    Obviously, I was being a bit wry in my comment #54, using Ardis’s word choice. You know very well what happened to “uppity” blacks throughout our nation for centuries.

  57. Speaking by proxy for Darius Gray, since I thought there should be at least one voice of a Black person in this conversation:


    He’s off on a father/son outing, but I’m sure he’ll enjoy reading the comments when he returns. I called him to get his contribution to this conversation. And there it is.

  58. Margaret, aren’t you being a little unfair to Brando? You are willing to imagine the noblest of motives for Smith and Carlos but write Brando’s protest off as the actions of a bored actor. Why should he have kept quiet because he wasn’t Native American? Should the actions of Peter Norman not be remembered because he wasn’t African American? These are genuine questions btw. I’m too young to have heard of Brando’s boycott until you mentioned it, or to appreciate the events that precipitated his actions. Therefore, I’m genuinely interested to know why you hold his protest in contempt while celebrating Smith and Carlos.

  59. Gomez–isn’t it wonderful to live in the age in information? There’s plenty on Brando’s protest online, which is easily accessible. My mention of him was simply as a contrast. He is not the focus of this post, however. Enjoy the research!

  60. Kendall smith says:

    Given the caliber of today’s athletes, I’m not sure a standing ovation from them is really worth much. I doubt most of them could even tell you about the events of 1968, much less why they are worthy of applause.

    The fact of the matter is that the black-power salute was associated, in 1968, with such organizations as the Black Panthers. Want to hear the lovely words many white people associated with the prayer, er, raised fist? Go to this youtube clip from the panther produced film “Off the Pig”, the important part starts at 2:45.

    The athletes were black, hence justified in what they did. Brando was white, therefore not justified. Or at least that is what I understand–boiled down to be sure–from earlier postings.

  61. Mark B. says:

    Even if all the folks at the ESPYs (another chance for a molly-coddled group to revel for an evening in their self-importance; see, e.g., the OSCARs), stood and applauded Carlos and Smith for their actions 40 years ago, it simply shows that they too are capable of writing history with their feet and minds mired in the present.

    It’s not uncommon: Beard did it with his Economic Origins of the Constitution, Styron did it with his novel The Confessions of Nat Turner (why didn’t he simply name it The Confessions of William Styron), and to some extent, every historian does it. Why else historiography?

    The contemporary reaction to Smith and Carlos cannot be understood if we ignore the context in which they acted.

  62. #61: Again, we have some agreement. The ESPYs and Oscars are not good history sources. The late 1960s had a lot of emotion. Emotions were either red hot or numbed. Remember, 1968 was also less than 2 year ahead of Kent State, where millions of students shut down their colleges.
    Again, for me, The protest was like Scarlett O’Hara holding up her radish, and saying ‘I will never be hungry again!”

  63. That’s the atmosphere when Smith and Carlos made their gesture. Whatever it meant to them, they had to know it would shock and offend and insult a great many people. Maybe you think that’s fine. Maybe it *is* fine. But nobody should pretend it wasn’t shocking and offensive and insulting.

    I’m more insulted and offended by how my country, my church and my people treated blacks than I am those that protested that treatment. Protest the best way you can think of against something that is wrong. That was their pulpit for a short time. Let athletes treat that moment however they want. Despite being from the same country, I didn’t contribute anything to their success other than buying a pair of Nike shoes I saw advertised during the games.

  64. It was a carrot, Bob.

    That’s the trouble with unverified memories and presentism. People rewrite history, unintentionally adjusting the details and blurring the backgrounds and making manifesto-like pronouncements that sound great today but display gross ignorance of the past.

    And Scarlett is a fine model for any protest, isn’t she? While clutching that shriveled carrot she calls God as her witness and declares, “I’m going to live through this and when it’s all over, I’ll never be hungry again. No, nor any of my folk. If I have to lie, steal, cheat or kill.” Yeah. Great role model, that, for any social or political protest.

  65. Turnip.

  66. “I’m more insulted and offended by how my country, my church and my people treated blacks than I am those that protested that treatment.”


  67. I will be watching CNN’s _Blacks in America_ tonight (rebroadcast). I think we need to be careful about using past tense when talking about civil rights issues. The movement has not finished, and in the intermountain west, we have some particular problems. (Try the ad for new homes in Eagle Mountain, Utah which included a unique selling point: a low rate of minority population.) I chose to talk about an image that completely polarized people back in 1968. I wondered if it would do so today. Interesting.

  68. #64:”In a daze, she leaves the house and slowly makes her way to what remains of the garden. Spotting a green stalk, she grabs it and pulls a radish out of the earth, wipes off dirt and, like a wild animal, savagely gnaws on it. She chokes, retches and falls to the ground, weeping. Eventually, she becomes quiet. Then, with an effort, she stands. Raising a clenched fist she exclaims: “As God is my witness, they’re not going to lick me! I’m going to live through this and when it’s all over, I’ll never be hungry again! No, nor any of my folk. If I have to lie, steal, cheat or kill, as God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!”

  69. Margaret,
    Do you have a link to that ad? Or information on where the ad was published?

  70. Thomas Parkin says:

    You can’t control the meaning of symbols. A true symbol will bypass explanation and take its numinosity straight to the personal passions, imaginings, hopes and fears and held conceptions of the observer. Maybe that is why this kind of symbolic gesture is so often less than helpful, why it tends to be divisive.

    I personally find the black gloves and the clutched fists to be rather disturbing. I’m reasonably certain I’d be as disturbed by the same gesture made by a white man promoting any political understanding – a white fist in a white glove, or black glove, or purple glove – probably more disturbed. It is difficult to read a rasied fist as a symbol of equality or peace. You can read it as a symbol of ascension, but there again the fist and the glove add a warlike touch. I don’t know all that much about the details of the history surrounding that symbol. But, like I say, you can’t control the symbols that you choose to sue – they take on their own life.

    There is a strong symbolic potential in having the black man at the top of the raised podium – he might have made any number of gestures there. All the more than one he chose seems a little unfortunate.


  71. That isn’t Margaret Mitchell, Bob; it comes from a fan site, as amateurish as all the fan sites I googled that describe the scene with a carrot.

    Unfortunately for my pride, but lending further strength to my argument since it underlines the need not only to verify but to rely on credible sources, I find in checking the actual text of the book that Margaret Mitchell does write the scene with a radish. I found, too, that the scene lacks all relevance to the behavior of Carlos and Smith. There is no raised fist, no bold defiance of creation. Scarlett merely “said aloud: “As
    God is my witness, as God is my witness, the Yankees aren’t going to lick me. … If I have to steal or kill–as God is my witness, I’m never going to be hungry again.” Rather than being triumphant, it’s rather a sad scene, really, where “something that was youth and beauty and potential tenderness had gone out of her face forever.”

    The movie’s director recast the author’s original as unrecognizably as any of our own memories get recast when they are no longer convenient or useful or popular.

  72. #70: “It is difficult to read a raised fist as a symbol of equality or peace.” I agree. It was a symbol that Blacks now had power, and were ready to use it. That’s what “disturbed’ some Whites.

  73. My black son struggles with defiance of authority partly because he has had multiple white school administrators attempt to “stop potential problems before they start” because “I know how to handle THESE kids” – because they assumed a 6’7″, black teenager would be a problem. (Yes, those are actual quotes.) I have held him as he cried in frustration and anger – and I have no doubt that he might have raised his fist in defiance, anger, joy, pride, gratitude, prayer and any number of other emotions if he had been on that podium that day. I would have understood, even if I had wished he hadn’t done so – and I would not have been able to criticize him for it.

    I’ve never experienced his emotions directly. The vicarious experience was horrible enough for me to thank God I wasn’t born in his shoes. Any comment I might make about these athlete’s actions would be given from the comfort of my easy chair, and I’m not about to do so.

    A little less judgment and a little more charity generally is a good idea in cases like this – especially after 40 years of removal from the passion of the time.

    One last point:

    Acts of defiance are manifested in numerous ways. It would be wise to consider that we celebrate other acts of defiance (the Revolutionary War, a preacher’s son or daughter joining the Church over strong objections, Joseph Smith refusing to deny his experiences, etc.). Whatever we feel about this specific action, condemning it simply because it appeared to be defiant is an incredibly weak argument, imo.

  74. Thanks, Ray. Well said. As you would guess, I have many friends who have heard similar things–either directed to them or to their children.

    You know, many of us have a picture of Joseph Smith thrusting an unsheathed sword. In my stake, you could get a copy as a reward for doing things like watching _An American Prophet_ and reading Lucy Mack Smith’s history of her son. So we have one–not currently displayed, but in a storage room. For Mormons in my stake, the picture was the symbol of accomplishment and a reminder of our heritage and the battles our people fought. How would it have been received by those who perceived the Mormons as agitators and even murderers (Danites)? Did other stakes give out this picture, I wonder? I never knew if it was church-wide or only in our stake. I’d love to know.

  75. #69–Tim, the ad was pulled quickly and someone lost his job over it. It made the news, and I saw one copy, but never got it into my possession. But it DID make the news–which is good. That kind of thing used to be under the radar all the time. I have all sorts of stories from the 1950s and 1960s about subtle ways Blacks were kept in only specific areas in the Salt Lake City area. I have Black friends who had problems moving into a very nice area just a decade ago. The Eagle Mountain ad was so overt that it got some attention.

  76. I’m more insulted and offended by how my country, my church and my people treated blacks than I am those that protested that treatment.

    Very well said, jjohnson. Amen.

    Maybe it’s a generational thing, but I see nothing intimidating or disrespectful in that photo (the photo predates my birth by a decade). My gut reaction, regardless of what the athletes intended or so-called “PC” or anything else, it that the fist says triumph over adversity and the bowed head says humility and gratitude. I think it’s a beautiful image.

    This reminds me of the dust-up over the women’s soccer player who tore off her shirt (revealing a very modest sports top), just like the guys do when they win a big soccer match. Watching the game live, I didn’t think anything of it except, yay! they won!! It seemed so normal that I didn’t really take note of the shirt specifically either for good or bad. Then the next day the newspapers all said “Scandal!!” It took me some time to even figure out what on earth they were talking about.

    Different eyes see different things.

  77. Thomas Parkin says:


    I am only attempting to explore why the image continues to be provacative. In doing so, I am asking myself what it is about the image that evokes a passionate responce in me. I explored by feelings for a good part of the morning before I began writing my responce.

    I understand that for different reasons the racial aspect of the image and event is especially evocative for both you and Margaret. That isn’t the only reason the symbolism of the event and the image is provocative.

    The fact that we can understand why a thing is done doesn’t place the thing beyond criticism. We ought to be able to say this action did or did not communicate what it was meant to communicate what it meant to communicate – was or was not beneficial, on the whole. The fact that it continues to divide feeling amongst us who ought to be trying much harder to be less divided is telling – but it tells a lot more than that we haven’t entirely overcome older racial tensions.

    Good questions to ask – what are our symbols, how do we employ them? Maybe next time we march into Missouri we will be more circumspect in how we symbolically represent our intentions.


  78. Thomas Parkin says:

    I’m going to include a sig line on everything I post asking people to forgive the kind of dyslexia I seem to have developed.


  79. Kendall Smith says:

    “Maybe it’s a generational thing, but I see nothing intimidating or disrespectful in that photo..”

    Type in ‘black panther’ at youtube and watch some of the videos. Watch how they talk about white people, then watch how they march around chanting “off a pig” while giving the black power salute.

    Right or wrong, that is what many white people associated and still associate with the raised fist.

  80. Kendall, I realize there’s history there. I’m just saying that the gesture doesn’t inherently give that impression, as evidenced by the fact it doesn’t give that impression to a fresh set of eyes (mine).

  81. Kendall, I’m afraid you’re being reductive. Black Power does not equal _Soul On Ice_, nor “off a pig”–and to simplify it to that is absurd. Black power suggests empowerment within a society which has disregarded, murdered, and robbed people brought to its borders in chains.

    I have a good friend who was a Black Panther and is now a sealer in the Oakland Temple. I see his past activism as part of his current passion for the gospel. What a remarkable thing! This man, who is surely the descendant of slaves who were torn from their families, now unites families in a Mormon temple. One of my Black LDS friends has uncles who were Black Panthers. She honors them, and is proud to show me their artwork.

    I personally am a great fan of the man who said that Blacks must gain equality “by any means necessary”–Malcolm X. But I recognize his evolution, his movement from black nationalism towards greater inclusion–conditional upon the fulfillment of constitutional guarantees to all. I condone no crime done by any Black Panther in the name of empowerment, but I see the movement itself as part of the maturing process.

    Of all people, Latter-day Saints should be the first to applaud every effort to unite the families torn asunder by colonial greed. We Mormons once set ourselves apart from the rest of America and anticipated that the Civil War would be apocalyptic–with the righteous survivors joining us in “Zion.” I can only imagine how a you-tube of O.P. Rockwell would compare to “off a pig.”

  82. For me, ” Generational Thing” has some truth to it. But it was a revolutionary time. TV was bring us photos of Blacks dieing in larger numbers in Vietnam. TV was showing us the Black South. Both Blacks and Whites were ready for a change. Most Whites tended to be more “open” to what they saw that day, and let the gesture pass.

  83. Kendall Smith says:


    If you choose to view my explanation of why the black power salute was offensive or at least disturbing to many people as “reductive”, well, that’s your right.

    That you choose to see someone’s past activism in an organization dedicated to violence as somehow a positive thing is frankly disturbing. My guess is that the families of police killed by the Panthers wouldn’t see it as a positive, either.

    What about the Panthers attitude towards those they thought of as “Uncle Toms”? I can dig up H. Rap Brown’s thoughts on them as expressed in rally to “Free Huey”. I wonder what H Rap would have thought, in 1968, about black Mormons?

    OP Rockwell was a sociopath and a murderer; I’m not making any excuses for him or his crimes,nor will I justify his behavior. His actions would offend, as well they should.

  84. No, Kendall, I’m not suggesting that many people weren’t offended by the black power salute. That’s obvious. That’s not where the over-simplification happens. The assumption that Black Panthers were a monolithic group holding identical ideals and goals–that they all wanted to make policemen’s children orphans–is where the argument gets reductive. The goal was never violence but equality. It’s a means and ends argument.

    And do you honestly not believe that activism suggests an predilection for passion and devotion? The fact that one risks so much for a cause makes a huge statement about their willingness to sacrifice. Since we’re told that the lukewarm get spewed out of God’s mouth for their easy “whatever” attitude, it would follow that those who have shown passion–Saul/Paul, for instance–would bring their strength to whatever cause they chose.

    As for H. Rap Brown’s thoughts on black Mormons (there was just a handful in 1968), I’d say, why stop there? Black Mormons still get labeled as Uncle Toms. It is no small thing for an African American to join the LDS Church. One of our filmmakers noted that there were no “lukewarm” black Mormons in any of the interviews.

  85. Black Panther Party goals:
    You might not agree with these, but note that there is no goal to commit violence. There is a separatist aspect, but Mormons in particular ought to be understanding of that. Our own separatism and independent power were among the reasons for our persecution. And if the socialist aspect seems offensive, think of the great experiment we Mormons had in the United Order. Judge gently.

    The 10 step program was the Bible of the BPP. It stated that all African Americans should be free and determine their destiny. That there should be full employment and an end to Capitalism that preys on the African American community. It called for decent housing and sound education. It stated that its members be exempt from military service and that all police brutality should stop. It called for the release of all African Americans held in jails and demanded justice by having juries who were African Americans. The BPP demanded land, housing, education, food, clothing, peace and justice. The BPP demanded that they have their own jurisdiction within the U.S. so that they could empower themselves and determine their destiny.

  86. Costanza says:

    The assumption that Black Panthers were a monolithic group holding identical ideals and goals–that they all wanted to make policemen’s children orphans–is where the argument gets reductive. The goal was never violence but equality.

    I have to confess to being a little confused here. If it is reductive to claim that all BPs shared ideals and goals that were violent, is it not equally reductive to make claim that “The goal was never violence but equality”?

  87. I get to babysit my grandkids shortly, so this will be my last comment for awhile. Sigh.

    Good point, Costanza. I think everyone attached to the empowerment of blacks during the most turbulent years of the Civil Rights Movement would have a particular take on the definition of equality according to their life experience, and on the best way to get it. When the Black Panthers formed a party (and thus were structured), they chose specific goals, outlined above. Violence did happen (but let’s be honest about ALL of the violence, not just what the Black Panthers committed), but it was never a goal. In fact, the insistence that Blacks not be drafted to fight in Viet Nam was a step towards non-violence in the worldwide framework.

    Our starting point–that picture of Smith and Carlos–does not of itself suggest violence nor does it call for it. It does suggest independence, solidarity, and power. And the question of semiotics enters again. Will some people READ violence into the upraised fist? Of course. But I’m aware of no violence committed as a result of what Smith and Carlos did. I do recall that when _Roots_ aired, there was some violence. As Blacks faced the horrors of their communal past, there was a strong reaction.

  88. Kendall Smith says:


    I must confess this is somewhat difficult for me; I’m a great admirer of both your books and your movie. I also stand in awe at the courage of your co-author and friend, Darius.

    Having said that, how do you think the Panthers were proposing to implement socialism–or the end to capitalism–in their inner city jurisdictions? Free and fair elections?

    How were they proposing to get the police out of their neighborhoods? What means were they willing to employ to free black men from the prison system?

    More importantly, what were their actions, their concrete deeds, in service of their agendas?

    The answer to all of the above was simple: violence. Violence against police, violence against white businessman, violence against white people generally who were seen as the underpinning of the oppressive white system. Violence was also to be employed against “Uncle Toms”–as H Rap Brown explained, they were to be given the chance to “change their way of thinking” and if they didn’t come around to his way of seeing things they were to be “offed”.

    Also telling are the consequences that the muscle end of the Black Power movement had for American cities, and inner cities in particular. Police did leave and ignore certain parts of town, and crime went through the roof, no small amount of it being carried out by Panthers themselves. Capitalism in the form of small business also left, and the resulting unemployment didn’t help already hurting communities.

    Anyway, all this is far afield from the original post. I just wanted to make the point for younger readers out there that not everyone who was offended or upset by the Black Power Salute at the Mexico Olympics was some redneck Ku Kluxer or Aryan Nation nutjob. For many, Black Power meant armed revolution.

  89. To be honest, Kendall, I think the complexities are simply too much to tackle in little paragraphs. I don’t think I want to try. Check out Spike Lee’s _Malcolm X_. It ends with Malcolm’s words “By any means necessary.” Nelson Mandela was to have said the words, but refused because he knew they could be problematic coming from him in South Africa, and could even damage what he was trying to do. But the epilogue by Ossie Davis–which was actually read at Malcolm’s funeral–addresses the issue specifically as it answers calls to abandon Malcolm as a violent force in the Civil Rights Movement. “Did he ever himself commit an act of violence?” Ossie Davis asks. The answer was no. (But you have to hear the whole epilogue to catch its power.)

    Thanks for your kind words about the work Darius and I have done. They’re reassuring.

    Grandkids are here. Thanks for the conversation.

  90. Mark B. says:

    Heck, my dad was a Black Panther.

    Before any blacks were.

    In the days of the segregated army (pre-1948), the 66th Infantry Division was nicknamed the Black Panther division.

    Here’s the wikipedia entry about the division.

  91. For what it is worth, the original Olympics were a religious celebration (the Greeks celebrated in a number of ways, including with games, Alexander would celebrate major victories with sacrifices and games, for example).

    One feature of it was laying aside all politics and war. Boycotts are the thing that most defiles the spirit of the Olympics, which originally was to lay aside conflicts and petty human concerns and celebrate before the gods (or God if you were a mystery cultist who believed that the pantheon was just an image hiding the one God).

    In such a context, prayer would be appropriate.

  92. I was 2 years old in the summer of 1968. I think I became aware of the incident about 10 years later. At the time, I couldn’t understand why people found the gesture so offensive. The posts here have helped me understand the POV a little better, but I still can’t quite wrap my brain around it. Now of course, 40 years on, things may look different to us, but do you see any anger or defiance in these men’s faces? I agree 100 percent with Margaret — there’s nothing inherent in the picture that suggests violence; triumph and unity are equally reasonable interpretations (again, I do get that we are looking at it from a 40-year remove). Bottom line, though — I am moved by their courage.

  93. Jason Slater says:

    I can’t believe not once was Peter Norman the WHITE Australian mentioned. He stood up for so much more. TO stand up for Black America at a time when American whites couldn’t even do so shows GREAT COURAGE. He also wore an Olympic project for human rights badge in support of tommie and john. But still not mentioned. A statue was made to honor Tommie and John but still nothing for Peter Norman.

    Guess what!!!! Matt Norman who is Peter Norman’s nephew has made a documentary film called SALUTE which is currently playing in cinema’s across Peter Norman’s home country of Australia to amazing applause, standing ovations and critics calling it the greatest film ever made in that country. Matt Norman is also starting the film drama called “1968” which is a Salute to the event. Go have a look on Youtube (search for Salute the movie). Critics are raving about this film. It’s also coming to America. Finally for the first time we hear what really happened by all three men involved and not just the American’s.

  94. Jason Grady says:

    SALUTE – Best movie I’ve ever seen. I’m in Australia. This film is ripping it up at the cinema’s. Hopefully the U.S gets to see this film and meet Peter’s nephew who is truly inspirational. The entire audience cried like babies at the end of the film. Truly beautiful.

    remember the name PETER NORMAN

    10/10 for the greatest Australian film made.

  95. #93 & 94: Thanks for the ‘heads up. I knew or know nothing of Peter Norman. I WILL somehow see this movie.

  96. Thanks for that link! I am excited to see the film.

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