Fortieth Anniversary of Olympic ‘Black Power’ Salute
The sixteenth of October marked the 40th anniversary of the high-profile protest made by two US athletes against their own racist imperialist ruling class at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.
That morning, Tommie Smith won the 200m gold medal in a world record time of 19.83 seconds, with Australia’s Peter Norman finishing second and American John Carlos in third place. At the medal award ceremony that followed, the two US athletes received their medals shoeless, but wearing black socks – to represent black poverty. Tommie Smith wore a black scarf around his neck – to represent black pride. John Carlos left his tracksuit top unzipped, “to show solidarity with all blue-collar workers in America” and wore beads, which he later said were “for those individuals that were lynched, or killed that no-one said a prayer for, that were hung and tarred. It was for those thrown off the side of the boats in the middle passage.” All three wore ‘Olympic Project for Human Rights’ (OPHR) badges.
OHPR founder (now Professor) Harry Edwards had originally intended to organise an African-American boycott of the games, with the aim of highlighting US and South African Apartheid, stating “You can no longer count on the successors of Jesse Owens to join in a fun-and-games fête propagandised as the epitome of equal rights so long as we are refused those rights in a white society.” (Quoted on everything2.com)
When ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ played, Smith and Carlos bowed their heads in mourning, and raised their fists in the militant salute familiar to so many workers in struggle, and popularised in the US by the anti-imperialist Black Panther Party. The symbolic gesture became front-page news around the world.
The Associated Press described the salute as “Nazi-like”, and Chicago columnist Brent Musburger called them “black-skinned storm troopers”, but the black American working class recognised Smith and Carlos as heroes. The US establishment, greatly angered by this hard-hitting exposure of their racism, was quick to denounce the runners as ‘unpatriotic’, and ‘un-American’; familiar epithets to all those who resisted US Jim Crow apartheid and oppression.
As Paul Robeson noted, when faced with similar accusations: “Patriotism – love of one’s country and devotion to its people’s interests – cannot be equated with the outlook of some Wall Street corporation lawyer who is appointed secretary of state, or with some political office-seeker who is rewarded with the job of issuing passports.” (Here I Stand, 1958)
Smith, too, was undaunted, and replied in the best tradition of US athletes, notably Mohammed Ali, who two years earlier, on 23 August 1966, at the height of US imperialism’s predatory war of conquest in Vietnam, had refused to be drafted into the Army, pointing out bluntly that “I ain’t got no quarrel with the VietCong: no VietCong ever called me nigger.”
“If I win, I am American, not a black American” said Smith. “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.” (Cited on famouspictures.org)
The notoriously right-wing Chicago businessman and then International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Avery Brundage, was incensed, and in an immediate response to their actions ordered Smith and Carlos suspended from the US team and banned from the Olympic Village. A spokesperson for the IOC described the salute as “a deliberate and violent breach of the fundamental principles of the Olympic spirit”. Brundage, who was president of the United States Olympic Committee in 1936, had gained notoriety by raising no objection to Nazi salutes during the Berlin Olympics, which he had refused to boycott.
The raised clenched fist, first known as the ‘Red Salute’ was used as a greeting by Bolsheviks in the Soviet Red Army during the Russian civil war and war of intervention and has become an international symbol of liberation fighters and workers in struggle.
During the Spanish Civil war, it was popularised by the International Brigades as the ‘Anti-Fascist Salute’. In addition, it has been used by the Irish Republican Army, the women’s liberation movement, the American Indian Movement, and, of course, by the Black Panther Party for Self Defense.
The Black Panther Party (originally the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense) was a revolutionary nationalist organisation established to promote Black Power and self-defence. Active in the United States from the mid-1960s into the 1970s, it was sympathetic to communism, drawing particular inspiration from the Chinese revolution.
Founded in Oakland, California, by Huey P Newton and Bobby Seale on 15 October 1966, the Panthers organised workers’ resistance and the protection of African-American neighbourhoods from police brutality. The party philosophy was one that espoused the political views of Malcolm X and called for an end to the exploitation of the black masses by capitalists, and a redistribution of wealth. The party leaders and many of its activists relied on the works of Karl Marx, Lenin, Mao Zedong and Kim Il Sung to inform how they organised as a revolutionary cadre. In consciously working toward a revolution, they considered themselves a vanguard party, “committed to organising support for a socialist revolution”.
Just one year before the Mexico Olympics, in 1967, the Black Panther Party had marched on the California State Capitol in Sacramento in protest at a ban on weapons – this ban being intended directly to offer legislative support to police oppression in the face of the newly-awakening movement for self-defence growing within the black community under the Panthers’ leadership.
The party’s official newspaper, The Black Panther, was also first circulated that year. By 1968, the party had expanded into many cities throughout the United States, including Chicago, Los Angeles, San Diego, Denver, Newark, New York City and Baltimore. Membership rocketed to an estimated 5,000 and the newspaper had grown to a circulation of 250,000. (Figures quoted in Molefi Kete Asante and Mambo Ama Mazama, Encyclopedia of Black Studies, 2005)
The revolutionary spirit of the times was moving the masses and clearly influenced the actions of the Olympic protestors. As Geoff Small, a film-maker commissioned by the BBC to make a documentary about Tommie Smith and John Carlos (Tigerlily Films’ Black Power Salute) noted, the anti-imperialist sentiment was by no means limited to the black members of the team – any more than the revolutionary movement in the United States was limited to the particularly oppressed black community:
“[I discovered] a plethora of revelations that transformed their monumental act into the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
“For starters, it was not a spontaneous gesture – they were members of a militant black student group.
“An outfit, moreover, inspired by Muhammad Ali, supported by Dr Martin Luther King, and targeted for extermination by the most powerful man in the Olympic movement, International Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage.
“Even more intriguing, I discovered that not all the players in these supposedly ‘Black Power’ protests were actually black.
“Behind the scenes on Tommie and John’s campus, sympathetic white students like Linda Huey and Art Simburg actively supported the Olympic Project for Human Rights’ cause, which was formed by black athletes in 1967.
“Astonishingly, OPHR also found high-profile allies in most of the all-white Harvard eight-man rowing crew.
“Prior to representing America at the games, their advocates wrote to every member of the USA Olympic team urging them to consider their black peers’ political agenda.
“And equally mind-blowing, I discovered that, aided by one of the Harvard rowers, Peter Norman, the white Australian who won the silver medal in the 200m, joined in Tommie and John’s memorable victory stand protest.” (‘Behind the black power salute’ by Geoff Small, BBC News Online, 3 July 2008)
Smith and Carlos paid a heavy personal price for their principled stand and refusal to back down or apologise after the event. Enjoying none of the usual material fruits of Olympic success, they were ostracised by the US sporting establishment and subjected to harassment orchestrated by the capitalist press.
Time magazine showed the five-ring Olympic logo with the words, “Angrier, Nastier, Uglier”, instead of “Faster, Higher, Stronger”. The runners and their families received death threats.
Even Peter Norman, the Australian who was sympathetic to his competitors’ protest, was reprimanded by his country’s Olympic authorities and cast out by the Australian media (themselves no strangers to racism and colonial oppression). Norman was not picked for the 1972 Olympics, despite finishing third in his trials. Depression and heavy drinking followed. He suffered a heart attack and died on 3 October 2006. Smith and Carlos were pallbearers at his funeral.
Following the Beijing games of August 2008, which the US and European imperialist media fell over themselves (entirely baselessly and, in the event, wholly unsuccessfully) in trying to brand as the ‘Genocide Olympics’, one cannot but reflect on the breathtaking hypocrisy of the spokesmen of these free-market fundamentalists.
The US and Britain are truly the most heinous terrorist states to stalk the earth. Their greatest gifts to humanity have been a long history of exploitation, slavery, domestic and colonial racism and apartheid. What is more, they continue to mete out death and destruction in order to guarantee continued extraction of superprofits from the world’s masses, whom they keep in benighted poverty and ignorance in order that they might accumulate sickening wealth. These crimes, together with their contemporary war crimes in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yugoslavia, Somalia and Pakistan, as well as the crimes of their proxy wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Palestine, etc, are the real genocides being perpetrated in our world.
Given the crimes of British imperialism, and the coming upsurge in revolutionary sentiment that can be expected to accompany the looming capitalist crisis of overproduction (aka the 2008 ‘credit crunch’), the London Olympics of 2012 may well see a renaissance of such principled protest.
For now, we must not only celebrate, but draw inspiration and example from, the 40th anniversary of this courageous protest made by Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who consequently earn their place among the foremost cultural representatives of the American people, able to recognise the true criminality of their own government and declare to their own fellow citizens and the oppressed masses of the world that their battle was with US imperialism, and this is the first score they should think about settling.
We offer them in return our Red Salute! A luta continua! (The struggle continues!)