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LIT History: Let's talk about this iconic Olympic photo

The LIT History Series is for the Legends, Innovators and Trailblazers that have shaped our culture. I love history, and in turn, I love black history. So much of our culture has been defined by those who've come before us, so I write this to capture and chronicle our narratives. With the Opening Ceremony of the 2016 Olympics on Friday, a lot of us can't stop talking about the upcoming games. I, for one, am beyond excited. I've already waxed poetic about my first experience watching the Olympics, but I can't help but think about another moment in black Olympic history that has resonated with me and the rest of the culture.

This iconic photo right here:

Photo: inthepastlane.com
Photo: inthepastlane.com
Photo: inthepastlane.com

Who/what?

Tommie Smith (center) and John Carlos (right) had just won the gold and bronze medals, respectively, for the 200m race. When the U.S National Anthem played, both Smith and Carlos bowed their heads and raised a black-gloved fist in the air. They also wore black socks with no shoes (symbolizing black poverty), and the badges of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, a group dedicated against racial segregation and racism in sports, on their clothes. Carlos also wore beads, which he explained "were for those individuals that were lynched, or killed that no one said a prayer for, that were hung and tarred." They were also "for those thrown off the side of boats that carried slaves across the Atlantic from Africa." Peter Norman, the Australian who won the silver medal, also supported Smith and Carlos by wearing the same badge as them. It was also Norman who suggested that Smith and Carlos share the black gloves used in the famous salute since Carlos left his pair in the Olympic Village. Smith and Carlos were booed as they walked away from the ceremony.

When/where?

The year was 1968 in Mexico City. It was the year Star Trek aired television's first interracial kiss and In the Heat of the Night (starring Sidney Poitier) won the Academy Award for Best Picture. The same year Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. The same year Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. The same year protests mounted over the Vietnam War. The same year protesters were beaten by police at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Yeah. It was that year.

Why?

It goes without saying that the racial tension in America reached a boiling point in 1968. Black athletes were in talks of joining a boycott of the Olympic games to protest the racial inequalities in the country before the games started. However, the boycott, organized by sociologist and San Jose State University professor Harry Edwards, never really happened. Both Smith and Carlos were students at San Jose State University and took part in the conversation for a boycott. When the boycott didn't pan out, the two decided to make their own personal statements. "If I win I am an American, not a Black American," Tommie Smith said at a press conference after the event. "But if I did something bad then they would say 'a Negro'. We are Black and we are proud of being Black." "Black America will understand what we did tonight," he added.

Aftermath

For "politicizing" the Olympic Games, U.S. Olympic officials, under pressure from the International Olympic Committee, suspended medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos and expelled them from Team USA. Once they returned home they were vilified in the media "black-skinned storm troopers," and even received death threats. However in the black community, they were recognized as heroes. “We were just human beings who saw a need to bring attention to the inequality in our country,” Smith said years later as Time reports. “I don’t like the idea of people looking at it as negative. There was nothing but a raised fist in the air and a bowed head, acknowledging the American flag — not symbolizing a hatred for it.” Smith and Carlos both played professional football briefly, and both went on to become high school athletic coaches. In 2005, their alma mater unveiled a 23 ft. sculpture of that iconic moment on the medalist podium.
Photo: complex.com
Photo: complex.com
Photo: complex.com Tommie Smith and John Carlos paid a heavy price for their unapologetic blackness. However, their decision to make a statement on an international level against the inequalities in America created an image that will forever be a part of black culture and pride and will forever be a staple on the walls of black households. Neither of the men apologized for their actions.

I know that's right!

Photo: theundefeated.com
Photo: theundefeated.com
Photo: theundefeated.com

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