Sports and Social Justice: Tommie Smith and John Carlos

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Athletes standing up for social justice under the spotlight of their respective arenas hasn’t always been widely accepted. Looking back to the 1960’s, African Americans were dominating sports, but were still not equal to their white countrymen. The sixties was a decade defined by the Civil Rights Movement, protesting against the Vietnam War, the Black Panther Party, and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Two athletes who will forever be immortalized in sports history are Tommie Smith and John Carlos.

In 1968, Smith and Carlos competed in the 200 meter race in the Mexico City Summer Olympic Games. Carlos placed third, winning the bronze medal, while Smith won the race claiming the gold medal. During the award ceremony, Smith and Carlos decided to show the world that although they represent the United States in the Olympic games, African Americans were still unjustly treated in their every day lives as citizens of the United States.

As the Star-Spangled Banner played, Smith and Carlos raised their black gloved fists – a symbolic action depicting Black power.

“I had a moral obligation to step up. Morality was a far greater force than the rules and regulations they had. God told the angels that day, ‘Take a step back – I’m gonna have to do this myself.’” – John Carlos

 Their protest was viewed as an act of betrayal to their own country in the eyes of the Olympic Committee and the spectators. However, as they claimed victories for the United States of America, their brethren were claiming losses everyday in a country that they helped build.

Martin Luther King Jr., one of the most prominent civil rights leaders of the sixties had been assassinated just six months prior. African Americans were protesting the Vietnam War, wondering why they were being drafted to fight for a country that treated them as second class citizens. Riots were erupting throughout the country in the name of equality and the fight for civil rights.

Smith and Carlos knowingly and willingly put their livelihoods on the line for the sake of taking a stand for what was right: “In life, there’s the beginning and the end. The beginning don’t matter. The end don’t matter. All that matters is what you do in between – whether you’re prepared to do what it takes to make change. There has to be physical and material sacrifice. When all the dust settles and we’re getting ready to play down for the ninth inning, the greatest reward is to know that you did your job when were here on the planet.” – John Carlos

Carlos and Smith were suspended by the U.S. Olympic Committee as a consequence for their act of protest.

The glory came as quickly as it went.

Smith graduated from college and went on to play professional football for the Cincinnati Bengals for three seasons. Afterwards, he became a track coach and sociology professor at Oberlin College in Ohio, and later Santa Monica College in California.


Carlos faced a different path. He worked security at a night club and as a janitor. In his personal life, his wife faced hazing from media outlets, which strained their marriage and ultimately ended in divorce. His children were bullied in school as well.

Contrary to popular belief, their medals were not confiscated after being suspended and sent home from Mexico City. Smith was inducted into the U.S. National Track and Field Hall of Fame a decade later, in 1978.

Standing up for what is right is not always easy or gratifying in the end. A lot of times, those who were brave enough to take a stand never received their flowers or apologies. Being on the right side of history often means being hated and feared by the majority and, somewhere down the line, those who were on the wrong side admit to it. Being on the right side of history can also mean staring death in the face by the hands of those most resistant to change, those whose hands are drenched in blood, those who try to wipe them clean by naming the murdered heroes.

Advocating for social justice is a gory war that will endure until justice is served and equity is enacted.

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