In 1968, I was a child sitting in my living room watching the Summer Olympics in Mexico City. I remember being amazed by the gymnasts and divers and cheering on the track and field athletes. I also remember watching when the U.S. athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos won the gold and bronze medals for the 200-meter race and later watching when they stood on the medal platform raising their black-gloved hands in fists and bowing their heads as the national anthem played. As I was thinking about the upcoming Winter Olympics that will take place PyeongChang, Korea, I found myself remembering this historic event.
Participants and viewers remember events differently, and primary sources can offer insights into a participant’s experience. In an oral history interview conducted in 2013 and collected for the Civil Rights History Project, Carlos talks about the importance not only of taking a stand, but also of understanding the impact of taking that stand. He talks about his influences and how he became interested in civil rights and the plight of the African American community. He talks extensively about his experiences at East Texas State University where he first experienced extreme discrimination, and his first meeting with Martin Luther King, Jr., and senior members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to discuss a possible boycott of the 1968 Olympics by African American athletes to highlight the plight of the African American community in the United States.
Carlos describes how he and Tommie Smith decided to make a statement after the boycott was cancelled, including deciding what to wear on the medal stand, and the meaning of what they wore and did. He talks about Peter Norman, the Australian runner who received the silver medal. Norman earns a special place in Carlos’s heart for wearing an “Olympic Project for Human Rights” button and because he did not denounce Smith and Carlos for their actions during the medal ceremony. The interview ends with Carlos reflecting on the impact of what he and Tommie Smith did and how it still resonates fifty years later. He also notes that there were ramifications for him and his family because of his actions, but when he looks back he is glad for what he did.
Encourage students to watch some or all of the oral history. Ask them:
- Do they believe that it was right for Smith and Carlos to protest during the medal ceremony?
- Is it okay to protest during the Olympic Games? What evidence in Carlos’s oral history supports their position?
- At hour 2:00:00 Carlos talks about sacrifice and an interaction he had with two fellow Olympians. Were the sacrifices Carlos made to take a stand worth it?
Let us know in the comments how your students reacted to hearing a first-hand account of this event.
Feb. 7: this post was updated to embed the video.