Remembering the 1968 Olympic Protest

During the 1968 Olympics at Mexico City, two American 200-meter sprinters, Tommie Smith and John Carlos performed arguably the most overtly political statement in the history of the Modern Olympic Games. After Smith and Carlos received their Gold and Bronze medals, respectively, they each raised a black gloved fist in a Black Power salute and bowed their heads for the duration of the national anthem.

Considered by many as the most overtly political statement in the history of the Modern Olympic Games, Carlos and Smith received massive backlash for their actions, including being kicked out of the Games and enduring death threats from fellow Americans. Smith explained his and Carlos’s motivation for the protest: “We were concerned about the lack of black assistant coaches. About how Muhammad Ali got stripped of his title. About the lack of access to good housing and our kids not being able to attend the top colleges.”

Carlos and Smith were inspired by Dr. Harry Edwards, an American sociologist whose career focused on African Americans in sports and sports management. Edwards was the founder of the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR), a movement calling for the boycott of the 1968 Olympics to protest racial segregation in America and racism in sports in general. Smith, Carlos, and silver medalist Peter Norman supported OPHR. Instead of boycotting, however, they elected to demonstrate openly at the Games proper, wanting to use their influence as leverage for the movement.

Edwards recounts the 1968 Olympics Black Power salute and its aftermath in The Revolt of the Black Athlete. The Fiftieth Anniversary edition of his classic of activist scholarship offers a new introduction and afterword that revisits the revolts by athletes like Muhammad Ali, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Tommie Smith, and John Carlos. At the same time, Edwards engages with the struggles of a present still rife with racism, double standards, and economic injustice. Again relating the rebellion of black athletes to a larger spirit of revolt among black citizens, Edwards moves his story forward to our era of protests, boycotts, and the dramatic politicization of athletes by Black Lives Matter. As Carlos declares years later, “They tried to make it a moment, but it was a movement because we’re still in the movement today.”

Incisive yet ultimately hopeful, The Revolt of the Black Athlete is the still-essential study of the conflicts at the interface of sport, race, and society.

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