Few images in the history of American culture over the past 40 years rival the one of John Carlos and Tommie Smith standing on the victory platform at the 1968 Olympic Summer Games in Mexico City with their raised fists thrust high in the air. Back then, Carlos and Smith were considered heroic by some, but roundly hated by many others. As the passage of time has given us the opportunity to put their actions into the proper context, their supporters can now feel vindicated while their detractors must eat their words.
Carlos and Smith, who received the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the 2008 ESPYS, should be considered nothing short of American heroes: two brave, committed souls, erstwhile freedom fighters who were willing to go against the grain to prove a righteous point on the world's largest stage.
Just like Muhammad Ali, the most prominent black athlete of that time who also was reviled for openly expressing his political beliefs, John Carlos and Tommie Smith are now revered for their courageous political actions, the same actions that originally got them booted off the Olympic team and sent back home in 1968.
In 1967, a year before Carlos and Smith rocked the world, another group of black athletes, including Jim Brown, Bill Russell and Lew Alcindor, gathered in Cleveland to meet with Ali and eventually support him in his refusal to enter the Vietnam draft. This meeting was but another example of black athletes being moved to act by the politics of the time. Such activities struck a blow against the racism that had previously kept black athletes compliant and just "happy to be there." By the late 1960s, black power and black athletic prowess went hand in hand. In these times, it was Dr. Harry Edwards, the noted scholar-activist, who brought much needed attention to the fact the black athlete had come to be a uniquely politicized figure. Carlos and Smith, Ali, and even Curt Flood, who challenged baseball's reserve clause after being traded following the 1969 season, all came to exemplify the black athlete's integral participation in the larger struggles around race and equality in American society.
When one considers the increasing role of the media in defining American life by the late '60s, the empowered image of Carlos and Smith served as a repudiation of other more degrading images of black men in circulation prior to that time. No, this was not a coonish Hollywood-produced figure like Stepin Fetchit, nor the humiliating image of Jesse Owens racing against a horse; it was two strong black men who decided to speak truth to power in no uncertain terms.
The image of Carlos and Smith stands as a reminder of an era that no longer exists. There is a tendency on the part of many now to use the actions of figures like them to chastise modern black athletes for their seeming lack of political activism. As the thinking goes, Carlos and Smith were committed athletes of conscience, while contemporary athletes are often dismissed as being indifferent at best and unwitting pawns in an exploitive system at worst. Such thinking is severely misinformed.
Carlos and Smith lived in times that were very different from ours today, and it's important that we appreciate the specific nature of those times in order to fully understand why Carlos and Smith are so important. In 1968 alone there were the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, and the riots that broke out at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, among many other events. May 1968 is remembered for the massive student protests and general strike in Paris. And just 10 days before the beginning of the Olympics in October there was the infamous Tlatelolco Massacre, where more than 100 student demonstrators were killed by the police and the military in Mexico City.
In other words, to be apolitical was simply not an option at the time, be it the progressive actions of Carlos and Smith or the more conservative actions of boxer George Foreman, who gleefully twirled a miniature American flag in the ring after winning his gold medal in boxing. It is worth pointing out that even though Foreman came to be considered a counterrevolutionary by many African-Americans and others on the left at the time, in hindsight it is his gratuitous flag waving that seems to foreshadow his eventual embrace by the mainstream and his subsequent financial success.
The political climate of '68 was also underscored by the military draft. The randomness of conscription meant that practically any young male stood a chance of being drafted into military service and sent off to fight in Vietnam. Though the draft was limited to males, the chance that your loved one might be called up to fight impacted mothers, wives, daughters and sisters. There's nothing like the possibility that you or someone you love might be sent off to fight a war of choice on foreign soil to create a culture where people are acutely attuned to even the most subtle political shifts.
Such is not the case today. Obviously. College students today aren't rioting in the streets or getting shot down on college campuses because the times don't support such activities. Neither 1968 nor 2008 exists in a vacuum. For the same reasons, black athletes aren't doing black-fisted salutes on the victory platform these days, and even if they were it wouldn't mean the same thing. Again, it's important to understand all of this in context.
Imagine if Carlos and Smith had staged their protest today. Their image would be used in commercials for sports apparel companies, late-night talk shows would be clamoring to book their first appearance, book deals and biographical movies would be announced, they would make appearances in the latest hip-hop videos. Their gloves would go on auction on eBay. In these commercialized times that we live in, the actions of Carlos and Smith would be simply another pop culture moment to exploit and a further opportunity to cash in on potentially lucrative notoriety. In the '60s, politics produced culture, whereas today it is the culture that often precedes the politics.
As we remember Carlos and Smith, let's be mindful that they did what they felt they had to do because the political circumstances of their time prompted their actions. It's important to remember the past, not relive it. Those who still find fault in their actions should recognize that the expression of free speech in a democratic society often takes many different forms, whether you agree with it or not. The rest of us should extend to Carlos and Smith the utmost respect that they were denied 40 years ago. Let's hope that going forward it doesn't take another 40 years for people to recognize the truth when they see it the first time around.
Dr. Todd Boyd, a regular contributor to Page 2, is an author, media commentator, and the Katherine and Frank Price Endowed Chair for the Study of Race and Popular Culture at USC. The paperback edition of his "hip-hop history" of the NBA, "Young, Black, Rich and Famous," is now available.