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Raising a fist for change

October 23, 2018

Athletes from 1968 Olympic Games protest continue to spread a message of equality

Fifty years after his shocking protest against racism on the medal podium at the Olympics in Mexico City, John Carlos has seen the vicious backlash he endured at the time evolve over the decades into admiration and respect. But he sees his legacy not as an individual act.

“We made that statement because we wanted to be that beacon for society, the blueprint,” he said.

Carlos, along with U.S. Olympic teammate Tommie Smith, raised black-gloved fists during the playing of the national anthem during the medal ceremony for the 200-meter race. Carlos won the bronze medal, and Smith won the gold.

“I look at my life as castor oil. It doesn’t have to taste good for it to be good for you," said Carlos, who spoke at a talk called “Raising a Fist to Taking a Knee,” sponsored by two Arizona State University units — the Global Sport Institute and the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy. The event, held at the Phoenix Art Museum on Tuesday night, marked the 50th anniversary of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.

After their protest, Carlos and Smith were sent out of the Olympic Village and faced years of repercussions, including death threats. But Carlos recalled how, at age 23, the activism he shared wasn’t about himself. 

“I was thinking about how I would make life better for my kids and my kids’ peers,” he said. 

Also speaking at the event was Harry Edwards, a sociology professor who founded the anti-racism Olympic Project for Human Rights in 1967. Smith and Carlos were part of the organization and wore OPHR patches on the podium. Edwards said one of his regrets was not involving female athletes more deeply in the movement.

“It was this notion that if we deal with the issue of race we would automatically deal with the issue of women,” he said. “It didn’t dawn on us until later that what happened to them didn’t happen because they were black, it happened because they were women.”

Wyomia Tyus, who won two gold medals in Mexico City and was the first person to win back-to-back gold medals in the 100-meter sprint, said the achievements of herself and other black women were diminished in that era. Few reporters were interested in interviewing her. 

“We came back and we still had no rights,” she told the crowd at the museum. “Is it because we were black or because we were women? I look at it as both.”

Also overlooked was her own voice at the Olympics, when she wore black shorts as part of the protest and dedicated her second gold medal, for being a member of the 4x100 relay team, to Smith and Carlos.

“I wasn’t looking for it to be about me,” she said. “I would like for people to think I was a woman who gave a lot to human rights.”

Audience at Raising a Fist to Taking a Knee event

Around 500 people attend the "Raising a Fist to Taking a Knee" event Tuesday evening at the Phoenix Art Museum, a 50th-anniversary commemoration and conversation about the 1968 Mexico City Olympics and the influence of athlete activism then and now, put on by Global Sport Institute, in partnership with the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Edwards said he always believed that the civil rights movement should be inclusive. That’s why, when the Harvard University rowing team asked to meet with him, he agreed. They showed up during his office hours, in suits. The Harvard team was selected to represent the U.S. in the Olympics rowing race, and the coxswain, Paul Hoffman, wanted to join the Olympic Project for Human Rights. 

Hoffman told the crowd Tuesday night that the Harvard students were aware of the political firestorm in 1968.

“We were training for three years to get into the Olympics, but we weren’t removed from newspapers and the fact that classmates and others were being sent off to Vietnam,” he said.

“There was a very large aspect of not wanting to be embarrassed or shamed by inaction.”

Hoffman told Edwards he would write to every member of the Olympic team and try to start a conversation about racism. 

“One of the alarming things to me, in retrospect, is ‘you dropped the rock in the well and you never heard the splash,'" he said. His letters drew no reaction.

Hoffman is perhaps best remembered as the man who gave his OPHR button to Peter Norman, the Australian sprinter who won silver in the 200-meter race and wore it while standing on the podium alongside Smith and Carlos. Norman also faced a severe backlash afterward.

“There are no final victories, but with all of these things we went through, we came out better.”
— Harry Edwards

Gina Hemphill-Strachan, a TV producer and ASU alumna, talked about her grandfather, Jesse Owens, and how he was reluctantly pressed into asking the black athletes in 1968 to refrain from protesting.

“He understood what the black athletes were feeling,” she said. “But he was in a position where he was sent there to try to get them to change their minds, but knowing once he got in there that there wasn’t going to be any change. 

“What he shared with us and what I learned throughout the years … was the strength of the black athletes finding reverence in each other and strength together.”

Edwards said movements wane after a few years, and that the protests of police brutality by athletes including football player Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the national anthem will likely fade soon. But he said that protest movements “are in the DNA of American democracy.”

“There are no final victories, but with all of these things we went through, we came out better.”

Earlier Tuesday, Carlos, Hemphill-Strachan and Hoffman spoke to Sun Devil student-athletes as well as students in a class called “Sports in U.S. History,” taught by Victoria Jackson, a sports historian and lecturer in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies.

“Sports is so rich. The systems of power and the ideas that play out in society are kind of hard to put your finger on, but we see them play out in sports,” Jackson said.

Hemphill-Strachan told the class that everywhere she goes, she hears stories about her grandfather and that influenced her career.

“My vision as a TV producer is that I’m a storyteller. I look to have stories be told that are transformative — stories that don’t just transform people, but change lives, change laws and change people's ways of thinking,” she said.

Carlos told the young people that these days, he declines to pose for photographs with his fist raised, as in the famous image of him on the podium in Mexico City.

“I say, ‘My fist never came down. Furthermore, I am the fist.'"

Top photo: John Carlos speaks on a panel about raising his fist for the rights for his son and future generations before a group of students and athletes on Tuesday at the Carson Student Athletic Center in Tempe. Joining him (from left) are Paul Hoffman, 1968 Olympic rower and outspoken ally to black athletes; Gina Hemphill-Strachan, Jesse Owens’ granddaughter and ASU alumna; and moderator and sports historian Victoria Jackson (out of frame). Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU Now


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Raised fists, rising hope: 50 years later, activist athletes reflect on Mexico City Olympic Games

September 25, 2018

John Carlos and Wyomia Tyus speak about modern sports activism at ASU-UNAM event in stadium where '68 salute occurred

When Wyomia Tyus and John Carlos stood in the Olympic Stadium in Mexico City for the first time in 1968, they helped launch a movement of athletes raising their voices — and in the case of John Carlos, raising his fist. Their goal was to bring light to racial inequality in the United States. A half-century later, their message still rings loud in stadiums around the world.

On Monday, Carlos and Tyus returned to Mexico City as guests of ASU’s Global Sport Institute and the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM). On the track of the Olympic Stadium, home to UNAM’s Pumas soccer team these days, the athletes reflected on modern sports activism. They were joined by another athlete and social activist, Chris Kluwe, a former punter for the Minnesota Vikings well known for his outspoken support of same-sex marriage and whose career's premature end many see as a result of his activism.

When Tyus walked through the entrance to the stadium on Monday, accompanied by her daughter, she said she could feel the chills. It was the first time she had returned to the track where she set a world record for the 100-meter sprint and became the first person to win the 100-meter in two consecutive Olympics, having won it four years earlier in Tokyo as well.

Similarly, for Carlos, the stadium is more than a building or a reminder of a moment in time.

“It’s a living organism,” he said. “That stadium breathes.” 

But for a moment, on Oct. 16, 1968, the stadium did not so much breathe as hold its breath. On that day, Carlos and fellow American Tommie Smith took to the podium to claim their bronze and gold medals in the 200-meter sprint. They stepped onto the podium wearing no shoes, only black socks, which represented black poverty in the U.S. Pinned to their chests were badges for the Olympic Project for Human Rights, an organization established by Smith, Carlos and others to fight racial segregation and racism in sports. Most famously, they each wore a black glove on one hand. When the American national anthem began to ring out through the stadium, they raised their gloved fists and bowed their heads.

“The whole stadium got quiet,” Tyus said. “That’s what I heard. I heard nothing.”

Global Sport Institute and UNAM event in Mexico City

Olympians Wyomia Tyus and John Carlos on Monday visit the track where they competed in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Photo by Mia Armstrong

Soon after, silence morphed into mumbles, which quickly gave way to both boos and cheers. From Olympic officials, the response was harsh — Smith and Carlos were banned from the Olympic Village and expelled from the games.

Carlos and Smith’s gesture has been ubiquitously memorialized as a Black Power salute. But for Carlos, its significance was broader: It was a symbol in support of human rights.

It was also a symbol that had a profound impact on the world, and particularly on Tyus. In a relay race later in the games, she wore black shorts in support of Smith and Carlos and dedicated her medal to them.

Tyus and Carlos reflected on the lasting legacy of their Olympic stories at a public event Monday evening organized by the Global Sport Institute and UNAM entitled “The Power of Sports Activism: From Black Power in Mexico ’68 to the Trump Era.” The event, held on UNAM’s campus, featured Carlos; Tyus; Kluwe; Kenneth Shropshire, the CEO of the Global Sport Institute and ASU’s Adidas Distinguished Professor of Global Sport; as well as Georgina González and Juan Villoro, two leading sports journalists and commentators in Mexico.

Villoro reflected on the profound and wicked effects of racism in the U.S. and Mexico, noting that sports can be a space for both deliberation and manipulation. The salute at the ’68 Games, Villoro said, marked a “before and after” in the world of sport, as well as in the world of civil rights.

Kluwe is part of the “after ’68” generation of athletes and social activists. But similar to Carlos and Tyus, Kluwe’s decision to raise his voice against social inequality was met with icy consequences. Kluwe’s experience was a demonstration of what González identified as an overarching principle of sport and social activism: Those willing to sacrifice their positions of privilege are those who will be able to affect meaningful change.

“It is incumbent on us to show that the world can be a better place,” Kluwe said. “In America, we still have much work to do.”

Carlos and Tyus agreed that not enough has changed since they brought the world’s attention to their fight for social equality in 1968. Today, players like Colin Kaepernick follow in their footsteps — a reflection of the fact that politics are inextricably linked to sports, the athletes said, even if some might prefer to think of them as separate. Kluwe argued that to say there should be no politics in sport is in itself a political statement.

Carlos remains hopeful thanks to the idea that, five decades on, people can look back on his raised fist and find a reason to continue their own fight for social justice. “Everything we did was for this moment,” he said.

And Tyus, who remembers being annoyed as a child when told that she should wear a cowgirl outfit when she wanted to play at being a cowboy, credits the Tennessee State Tigerbelles track program and its legendary coach Ed Temple for opening her path to being not only an Olympian, but someone who could speak up for those without a voice, to try to improve the world.

Running opened the door for her, Tyus told the audience in the UNAM auditorium, “but education kept it open.”

For Shropshire, these moments of reflection are at the core of the Global Sport Institute’s mission. “If we understand the past,” he said, “we can do better today and in the future.”

Written by Mia Armstrong. Top photo: (From left) Kenneth Shropshire, Chris Kluwe, John Carlos and Wyomia Tyus are interviewed at the Olympic Stadium in Mexico City on Monday. Photo by Mia Armstrong