Sports and Social Justice: Tommie Smith and John Carlos

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Athletes standing up for social justice under the spotlight 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, protest against the Vietnam War, the Black Panther Party, and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Two athletes from this turbulent time 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 everyday lives as citizens.

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

Gary Younge, in his The Guardian article on Carlos, “The Man Who Raised a Black Power Salute at the 1968 Olympic Games,” states their protest changed 20th century history.

“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. 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 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 went as quickly as it came.

Smith graduated from college and played 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 which 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. A lot of times, those who were brave enough to take a stand never receive their flowers or apologies. Being on the right side of history often means being hated and feared by the majority but, 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.

Advocating for civil rights is a gory war that will endure until justice is served and equality is enacted.

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