1968 was a year of both triumph and tragedy. Both Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated, President Lyndon Johnson signed the 1968 Civil Rights Act providing equal housing opportunities for all minorities, and NASA launched its first space craft, Apollo 8.
That year the Olympic Games was held in Mexico City and 3 young men, John Carlos, Tommie Smith, and Peter Norman, made a bold statement the likes of which had never been seen on an international stage before or since.
John Carlos is the son of two working class parents and as a child growing up in Harlem, he would often chase Malcolm X down the street after his speeches firing questions at him.
As a mischievous teenager who had an obsession with Robin Hood, Carlos and his friends would often find themselves in trouble after stealing food from freight trains and giving it to the poor. He actually discovered that he was a gifted runner after being chased by the police several times and being the only one of his friends to get away. He went on to win the bronze metal in track and field in the 1968 Olympics.
Tommie smith was born in Clarksville, Texas the 7th of 12 children born to Richard and Dora Smith. He is the only man in the history of track and field to hold eleven world records simultaneously. As a college student, Smith amazingly tied or broke a total of 13 world records in track. He also broke the world and Olympic records with a time of 19.83 seconds and became the 200-meter Olympic champion winning the gold in Mexico City.
Peter Norman was an Australian sprinter in the 1960s. Norman was preparing to be a butcher, and he discovered his natural speed quite by accident, when he filled in for a no show in the local club championship. The story was that he ran his first race on borrowed spikes. He kept running, and became a consistent Australian champion at 200 meters. He went on to win the silver metal in Mexico City.
When Carlos, Smith, and Norman took the podium with their gold, silver, and bronze medals draped around their necks the star spangled banner began to play. Carlos and Smith who both stepped on to the podium wearing black gloves and socks raised their fists into the air in the black power salute. Norman wore the Olympic Project for Human Rights badge as a show of solidarity. The Olympic Project for Human Rights or OPHR was an organization established by sociologist Harry Edwards and others, including Smith and Carlos, in October 1967. The aim of the organization was to protest racial segregation in the United States and elsewhere (such as South Africa), and racism in sports in general.
Their gesture will forever be seared into the annals of history as a symbol of courage, defiance, and character. While all 3 men gained international fame. Carlos and Smith went on to become heroes in the black community, and Norman was criticized and ostracized in his homeland of Australia, and abroad. He has only received a posthumous apology. Norman died of a heart attack in 2006, and both John Carlos and Tommie Smith were pall bearers at his funeral.
Today Carlos is a counselor at at Palm Springs High School in California, and Smith’s autobiography, “Silent Gesture,” was published in 2007, he was a long-time sociology professor as well as track and cross country coach at Santa Monica College.
Little things truly mean a lot. It is amazing how something as simple as a gesture can mark a revolution, tell a story, change the world, or symbolize a movement. Some actions speak volumes. What do yours actions say? Are they clear, calculated, concise and meaningful, or just rampant insignificance signifying nothing. This story proves that we can be effectively articulate without ever saying a word. But we should always be careful about what we don't say.