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U.S.A Olympic athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos stand in defiance of racism and inequality after winning their medals

Fists of Fury, Fifty Years Later

50 years ago, in October of 1968, as the star-spangled banner rang out across the Olympic awards ceremony in Mexico, Tommie Smith and John Carlos bowed their heads and raised their fists. Smith, standing in black socked feet, the tension evident in his posture, was captured in this pivotal moment by Life magazine photographer John Dominis. Carlos stands next to him on the Olympic podium, posture more relaxed, fist raised in solidarity. This moment would be heard around the world.

Both Smith and Carlos were medalists in the 200-meter dash, Smith with the gold and Carlos with the bronze. Peter Norman, an Australian sprinter, won silver.

On the way to the podium, the men defied Olympic tradition, taking off their shoes and holding them behind their back to protest poverty. They wore scarves and beads, to represent the protest of lynchings, which still commonly happened to black people during the 1960s.

As the anthem played, the men lowered their heads, protesting the hypocrisy of the United States, which proffers to uphold freedom and human rights for all, but had turned a blind eye upon the rights of black Americans.

Carlos even went so far as to unzip his jacket in defiance of upheld Olympic etiquette, in support of working-class people. Carlos later said in his 2011 memoir that he had deliberately covered up the ‘USA’ print on his uniform with a black t-shirt in representation of the shame that he felt about how slowly the United States was moving to recognize the rights that should be obvious to all people.

Smith, in an interview in 2016 with the Smithsonian’s Museum of African American History and Culture, said, “It was a cry for freedom.”

As they raised their fists in the air, Smith and Carlos faced an angry crowd that booed, and some people even went so far as to start screaming the national anthem as the men were ordered to leave the Olympic stadium. Later, their medals were stripped from them and the men were suspended from the United States Olympic Track Team.  

Though Smith and Carlos were pivotal members of a notorious point in sports history, the struggle for black Americans continues. Today’s generation may not be familiar with Smith and Carlos, but many are familiar with former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who made national news by sitting during the national anthem during a preseason game during his tenure with the San Francisco 49ers, and then continuing to kneel during the anthem at following games.

Kaepernick was quickly condemned by many people in America, even inciting a response from President Donald Trump.

Trump told Fox News, “I watched Colin Kaepernick, and I thought it was terrible, and then it got bigger and bigger … they could have suspended him for two … three games … they could have suspended him if he did it a third time for the season … I will tell you, you cannot disrespect our country, our flag, our anthem — you cannot do that.”

Kaepernick’s protest in the form of kneeling is meant to protest police brutality, and is a statement on how he, and many other black athletes, feel about racial injustice in America.

Kaepernick told NFL Media, “I am not going to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way … I have to stand up for people that are oppressed.”

Since 2016, Kaepernick has faced various repercussions, and is currently without a team. He was chosen by Nike as the face of an ad campaign with the slogan: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”

Smith has commented on Kaepernick’s protest, telling BBC that he cried when he found out about how Kaepernick was protesting racial injustice and police brutality.

While Smith is hopeful for the outlook of racial equality in America, he noted that “[Kaepernick] had a position — being one of the best quarterbacks and being a young, black athlete making this stand, making this political stand. But do you know how many stands like Tommie Smith and John Carlos or Colin Kaepernick were done but not noticed? Do you know how many times Colin took the knee before he was recognized? I sacrificed my career and people are going to have to sacrifice behind Colin too – we don’t stop because the glass is half-empty. It will improve because we’ll fight to fill it up.”

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