The famous Black Power salute in the 1968 Olympics is one of my favorite news photos. It is one of these rare moments where a simple, spontaneous act carries so much political meaning. Like the sole protester standing in front of the tanks in Tiananmen Square. I probably saw it hundreds of times, and it still deeply inspires me.
Even if you have never seen it before and you have no idea of the political context, this scene remains extremely powerful: the black Mexican night, the black tracksuit of the athletes, the black gloves raised and the bowed heads of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, winners of gold and bronze medals in the 200 meters race. They only had one pair of gloves – that’s why smith raises his right hand and Carlos his left. Carlos has his tracksuit top unzipped. He did it to show solidarity with all blue collar workers in the U.S.
This act cost Smith and Carlos a suspension from the US team, their expulsion from the games and later on, decades of vicious criticism. Their lives have changed forever, and not for the better. It was no surprise then, that not one of the 11,028 athletes in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing had the courage (or the will) to protest the hosts’ poor human rights record. People find these kind of acts to be “weird” or “unprofessional”, which really means “scary” and “dangerous”.
The third man in the 1968 picture is Australian Peter Norman. He also wore the badge of The Olympic Project for Human Rights (the black protest organization established before the games). Norman, who also suffered harsh criticism for this act, died of a heart attack in 2006. Here is a photo of Smith and Carlos carrying his coffin.
Yesterday a friend sent me this photo (taken by Stan Grossfeld of the Boston Globe). Tommie Smith and John Carlos are hugging with their wives as they watch Barack Obama sworn as the President of the United States.