Editor’s Note: The Sentinel sports staff is putting together a summer series looking at the legacies of the most influential African-American athletes in history. Today, Tommie Smith and John Carlos.
Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos impacted my life in a very indirect way.
But they impacted a lot of other people’s lives in a much more directly.
During the medal ceremony in the Olympic Stadium in Mexico City on October 16, 1968, Smith and Carlos, who are African-American, each raised a black-gloved fist and bowed their heads during the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner.
“My thoughts were, once you make the statement, whether you live or die, they can never take the statement away,” Carlos said during a 50th anniversary panel at San Jose State.
The pair were protesting for human rights, black poverty, black pride, support for American blue-collar workers and for individuals thrown off the side of boats in the Middle Passage during the slave-trading of African Americans. The protest took place just months after the death of Martin Luther King Jr.
What is lost in the raised fists is the fact that they were on the podium with no shoes to raise awareness for poverty and hunger around the world, too.
“And, I’ve said this before, but it was very sad, nationally, that two young black athletes had to do what they were doing to bring attention to the (issues) in our country,” Smith said during the panel. “We had to sacrifice to prove a point. We were vilified because we had to do this.”
Smith had won a gold medal in the 200-meter race in a world-record 19.83 seconds. Australia’s Peter Norman, who was also on the podium with Carlos and Smith, placed second and won silver in 20.06 seconds. Carlos won bronze after placing third in 20.10 seconds.
The photo accompanying this article was taken by photographer John Dominis and the gesture by the Olympians made front-page news all around the world.
When Sentinel sports editor Dan D’Addona told me about the idea to feature the legacies of legendary black athletes, I immediately jumped on the chance to cover the story of Carlos and Smith, something he wrote about two years ago to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the event.
In addition to sports, I am completely obsessed with music, particularly the American grunge scene and the British Britpop scene from the 1990s. One of my all-time favorite bands, The Stone Roses, was a part of the latter. Surprisingly, the band has a connection to Smith and Carlos.
The band’s 1989 self-titled debut album is one of the seminal British rock albums of all time, selling four-million copies worldwide — much less than it should have sold, in my opinion — and it was named the No. 1 British album of all time by the New Music Express in a 2006 poll of the greatest British albums ever made.
One of the songs that was included on future re-releases of the album is called Fools Gold — the band’s most popular song. The song itself was originally a standalone single released shortly after the release of the band’s first album.
The song was written by the band’s guitarist, John Squire. He wrote the song after picking up a “Breaks and Beats” album from Eastern Bloc Records in Manchester, England during a signing session for release of the band’s single, “She Bangs the Drums” — another one of their best.
The Breaks and Beats albums, of which there were 25, were popular among hip hop producers at the time as they featured drums for sampling.
Squire had bought the album because he liked the photo on the record sleeve — of none other than the legendary Dominis photo of Smith and Carlos with their fists raised.
Squire wrote Fools Gold over a drum loop from the Breaks and Beats album, of which’s origin can be traced to the song “Hot Pants” by Bobby Byrd. The Stone Roses’ bassist, Gary “Mani” Mounfield contributed a bass line that was inspired by Young MC’s song “Know How.” The band’s frontman Ian Brown gave what some believe are his strongest vocals, using lyrics inspired by the 1948 John Huston film, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” starring Humphrey Bogart.
The result was a song that became the band’s biggest commercial success. It was their first single to chart in the top 10 of the UK Singles Chart. It stayed in the top-75 for 14 weeks and peaked at No. 8.
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That’s probably way more than you ever wanted to hear about the song, but the point remains — who knows the likelihood of Fools Gold ever happening without Squire seeing the iconic photo of Smith and Carlos. It helped bring the band even more to prominence in the “Madchester” and “Baggy” cultural scenes that were prevalent at the time in Manchester. The band has had a big impact on my life, inspiring me to improve my guitar skills and further entrenched music as an important part of my life.
But what Smith and Carlos were protesting was, and is, way more important than music. Reading about the protest, I was shocked to see that International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Avery Brundage, also an American, disagreed with Smith and Carlos’ actions and ordered the pair suspended from the U.S. team and banned from the Olympic Village.
A representative from the IOC called Smith and Carlos’ actions, “a deliberate and violent breach of the fundamental principles of the Olympic spirit.”
If standing up against racism and injustice is against the, “Olympic Spirit,” then what exactly was going on in 1968?
Smith and Carlos received backlash from the sporting community in the US. Celebrated sports commentator Brent Musburger even called them, “a couple of black-skinned storm troopers” who were, “ignoble, juvenile and unimaginative.”
It’s hard to believe he actually said that.
It was only until later that Smith and Carlos received praise for the powerful statement. They received the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the 2008 ESPY Awards. The two were pallbearers at Norman’s funeral in 2006. It was Norman who suggested Carlos use Smith’s left-handed glove after Carlos forgot his gloves. Norman stood in solidarity with the two Americans and all three wore Olympic Project for Human Rights badges during the medal ceremony.
While Norman would be praised for his actions later — like Smith and Carlos — at the time, he was criticized and was not picked for the 1972 Summer Olympics despite qualifying 13 times in a row.
The greatest thing our country can take from Smith, Carlos and even Norman, is their conviction in the face of public criticism. People must fight for their rights to gain equality. The fact that anyone could have disagreed with their actions at the time baffles me, and even further, it’s incredible how long it took for them to be recognized as heroes.
It’s Smith’s quote after the protest that was the most powerful:
“If I win, I am American, not a black American. But if I did something bad, then they would say I am a Negro. We are black and we are proud of being black. Black America will understand what we did tonight.”
— Contact Assistant Sports Editor Beau Troutman at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BVTroutman.
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