Constitution Daily

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A 1968 sports protest that struck a chord with Occupy Wall Street

October 28, 2011 by Michael Simzak


Dr.  John Carlos knows a dramatic protest when he sees one. He also knows what it is like to be on top one moment and clawing up from the bottom the next. Perhaps that is why Occupy Wall Street caught his attention. While promoting his new book in his hometown New York on October 11th, Dr. Carlos decided to make his way to Lower Manhattan and witness the protests first hand.

If you’re a sports fan and the name John Carlos doesn’t ring a bell, it should. Because 43 years ago he was an Olympian at the top of his career, and on October 16, 1968, he and Tommie Smith initiated a silent protest that was heard around the world.  

Having just established a new world record of 19.8 seconds in the 200 meters, Smith, and Carlos, who finished third, exited the stadium to the dressing rooms to wait for the medal ceremony, as was customary. That would be about the last thing the two men did that night that accorded with Olympic custom.

At the appointed time, the three medalists were led across the stadium infield to the awards podium. The two Americans stepped onto the podium wearing black socks and carrying their white Puma sneakers, a symbol of the poverty of their youth.  Peter Norman, the silver medalist from Australia, joined the protest and took the podium wearing an Olympic Project for Human Rights pin given to him by the Americans as a sign of solidarity.

At the appointed time, the three medalists were led across the stadium infield to the awards podium.
After Smith was announced and presented with his medal, the first notes of “The Star-Spangled Banner” began to fill the stadium. The American flag was raised upward, and Smith and Carlos responded by bowing their heads and raising their black-gloved fists. The next 90-seconds produced one of the most iconic images in sports history. Protocol dictated that everyone in the stadium remain silent and standing throughout the playing of the national anthem. For the next 90-seconds everyone in the stadium and everyone watching worldwide were forced to watch and acknowledge the protest of the two American sprinters.

The retribution for Smith's and Carlos’s break with tradition was swift and absolute. Within 24 hours the two men were stripped of their places on the Olympic team, removed from the Olympic Village, and on their way home to California. At home, the two men were branded as militant radicals, marginalized and subjected to years of torment and threats.

The sprinters maintained that their protest was not supposed to be about race, but was an acknowledgement of the worldwide struggle for human rights. They wanted their gesture to be one of solidarity with those struggling against oppression, but not everyone saw it that way.

The intervening four decades seem to have brought an increased understanding of the men’s motivation and actions, and in 2008, Smith and Carlos received the Arthur Ashe Courage Award for their protest.  The protest continues to be one of the iconic images of the 1960s, and when Dr. Carlos addressed the Occupy Wall Street protestors, many greeted him with the same salute he offered 43 years ago this month.

Michael Simzak is Youth Programs Coordinator at the National Constitution Center and the official sports writer for Constitution Daily.

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