Fifty years on from Black Power salute: Has anything changed?
Tommie Smith and John Carlos saw their lives altered by the gestures but what is the legacy?
US athletes Tommie Smith (c) and John Carlos (r) raising their gloved fists to protest against racism in the US on the podium in the Mexico Olympic Games, October 16th, 1968. Photograph: Getty
Fifty years on from the Mexico Olympics and time has held on to Tommie Smith and John Carlos, their black-gloved fists still clenched and raised, heads bowed in defiance; two of the most sombre medal winners to ever stand on an Olympic podium.
The precise details of who decided on the aesthetics of the protest have become cloudy but what the world saw was so clean, breathtaking and beautiful that it – they – couldn’t be forgotten. But for all of the iconography, who could disagree with Carlos’s recent bleak assessment that for black Americans, nothing has changed.
The ceremony lasted just 90 seconds, and when the Star Spangled Banner finished the crowd’s reaction to the gesture was perplexed, with sporadic booing. Smith and Carlos may have appeared supremely controlled but the experience was terrifying: Carlos held his arm in a way he hoped might shield his face from the sniper fire he half expected. Given the bloody backdrop to the Mexico Olympics, Carlos had good reason to fear the ultimate retaliation. For in Mexico, those 50-year-old Olympics carry connotations of a less-famous, more violent protest.
On October 2nd last, 100,000 people gathered in Tlatelolco square in Mexico city to mark the 50th anniversary of those killed, tortured and disappeared in a state-devised massacre of protesting students. The mass shooting was the culmination of a series of stand-offs and flashpoints between the city’s students and government forces that had been running all summer.
Student protests were in keeping with the international mood: 1968 was a pivot year for democratic social protest. Mexican students demanded free speech, an end to state violence and a police force that was accountable. In short, their street protests represented a public challenge to one-party political domination of the Industrial Revolutionary Party (PRI) which held an unbroken run of power from 1929.
The scale and visibility of the student protests was contrary to the image that the government wished to portray through the Olympics: the “Mexican Miracle” of a rapidly growing economy and a harmonious society.
State anxiety to erase anything that would spoil the prestige of the games may have contributed to the violence of the night: they wanted the student body to literally vanish. But it was too late. Journalists had already arrived in the city in advance of the games and some turned up to the student protests because it was a story. Had the event just gone ahead, with a restrained police presence, it would have merited a couple of paragraphs. Instead, everyone present found themselves under machine-gun fire, people shot and stricken all around them in 90 minutes of indiscriminate carnage. The dead and injured were gone by the following morning. Thousands were incarcerated; some for years. Relatives of the missing risked arrest if they sought answers.
Olympic committees everywhere preferred to ignore the fact that an inferno had ever taken place
Of all the accounts of the evening, John Rodda’s dispatch for the Guardian, which appeared on October 3rd, offered the immediate terror of what had taken place.
Rodda had used his press credentials to take a place on a balcony where various speakers were addressing the crowd when the first shots were fired. He spent an hour lying face down as machine-gun bullets shattered the masonry and people around him began to moan and bleed. The confusion over the origins of the shooting helped the Mexican government to quickly establish the line that the students had initiated the violence: decades later, it was established that snipers had been used to make it appear as if the student body had incited the violence.
The Mexican government quickly assured the International Olympic Committee that the events of the evening were nothing to worry about. The IOC decided that the games should go ahead, a decision which left Rodda both disturbed and amazed and he attempted to convey his concerns to Britain’s IOC member, Lord Exeter. When that didn’t work, he took to the typewriter. “Was Lord Exeter aware that one of the helicopters swooped down and a man with a machine gun sprayed the crowd scampering for safety?” he wrote in the Guardian three days after the riot. “These, I would suggest, are crucial points, for they show that it was the army who started the carnage? Would 8,000 people go to the square knowing that there was going to be such an inferno?”
Olympic committees everywhere preferred to ignore the fact that an inferno had ever taken place. The athletes were already in the village; the stadium tracks were lined, the television cables all set up. Abandoning the games because of conflicting reports would have been too costly, too much trouble.
Not one country boycotted the event. The “Peace Games” went ahead and for that fortnight, it was easy for the world to be distracted by the usual athletic marvels – Bob Beamon’s leap and the Fosbury Flop and, of course, the incendiary moment for Smith and Carlos. It isn’t hard to imagine the relief of Mexican president Gustavo Ordaz and his officials when the camera lights shone on the mute and striking podium of the American athletes and turned attention towards the issues they raised.
But something flipped within the Mexican attitude towards governmental oppression in those weeks.
In the years afterwards there would be further protests and further violent reprisals and many more deaths. But Tlatelolco marked the beginning of the end for the PRI’s grip on power, even if it took until 2000 to finally break its stranglehold.
Rodda’s questions are still valid within Mexico, where attempts to determine how many were killed during the massacre and who, exactly, was responsible, have yet to be adequately answered.
In a terrific interview with Eoin McDevitt of the Second Captains podcast which was broadcast this week, the Sports Illustrated writer Tim Layden spoke about the legacy of the Smith and Carlos protest 50 years on. Layden met with Smith for a piece published this month, entitled “Fists of Fury”. When he finally reached Carlos by telephone, he found a man still animated but now frustrated by what he feels was the ultimate irrelevance of a political protest that, in many respects, defined and shaped his life afterwards. He communicated the pointlessness of reflection to Layden:
“I’ve been talking about this shit for 50 years and ain’t nothing changed since Mexico City in 1968. Nothing. I’ve spoken and spoken and spoken and it ain’t going to make a difference. I could die in another life and things could be the same.”
This decade alone has completely shattered the pretence that America had transcended the issue of race. Carlos’s disillusionment is sad and completely understandable. But he can’t know whether his actions 50 years ago haven’t already made a profound and life-changing difference to an unquantifiable number of people – of all colour – who watched their salute either live on their televisions or years later, and found that it triggered something within them.
But it is, of course, deeply shameful that the Mexico games ever went ahead just days after a state-led massacre in the host city. For that reason, too, Smith and Carlos’s pose stands as a lasting emblem of the murderous prelude to the protest Olympics.