Wednesday, October 16, 2013

A Silent Protest in Mexico City

If there was anything that could be said without hesitation about 1968, it would be that it was a year of protests.

The nation had already seen riots in every major city after the assassination of Martin Luther King, clashes in the streets between protestors and police during the Democratic convention in Chicago and a protest at the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City — and those were merely the most prominent. There were countless smaller scale protests throughout the year.

Thus, it really wasn't a surprise when a protest — albeit a silent one — occurred during the Summer Olympics in Mexico City. At least, it shouldn't have been a surprise. Folks were still outraged, though.

There were others who applauded the gesture — and that is what it was, really. A gesture. Not a demonstration. Not a riot.

It was like everything else in 1968. It had a polarizing effect.

On this day in 1968, two black athletes from the United States raised their fists during the playing of the national anthem at the medal ceremony for the 200–meter race. Little is remembered about that race, but much was made at the time of the behavior of two of the athletes during the ceremony.

Gold medalist Tommie Smith raised his right fist, and bronze medalist John Carlos raised his left. The silver medalist, Peter Norman of Australia, did not raise his fist, but he wore a human rights badge on his jacket as did the other two.

At the time, there was much talk of Smith and Carlos' "black power salute," but Smith later insisted in his autobiography that it was actually a "human rights salute."

Originally, the salute was intended to be delivered with Smith and Carlos wearing black gloves, but Carlos left his in the Olympic Village. Norman was the one who suggested that Carlos wear Smith's left–handed glove — and that is the reason why the athletes raised opposite fists.

All three stood in solidarity with each other. When Norman died seven years ago, Smith and Carlos were pallbearers at his funeral.

In 1968, neither probably expected to be alive too much longer. They each received death threats.

For his part, Smith saw nothing negative in what they had done. "We were just human beings who saw a need to bring attention to the inequality in our country," he told a documentary maker. "There was nothing but a raised fist in the air and a bowed head, acknowledging the American flag — not symbolizing a hatred for it."

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