Fifty Years Ago This Summer

In many recent articles and conversations concerning the issue of NFL players kneeling during the National Anthem, their action has been compared to that of Tommie Smith and John Carlos during the 1968 Olympics. Now, I accept that football players have the right to kneel during our National Anthem in protest. That choice is, in my mind, one of the great qualities of our country–protest against what is seen as unjust. What I do object to is the comparing of their act to that of Smith and Carlos.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos were two young track athletes. Track and field athletes in 1968, as now, were know and appreciated by a small number of fans. (What American won the 1500 meters in the Rio Games?) Both Smith and Carlos were students at San Jose State and Smith was the first runner to break twenty seconds for the 200 meters, and he did that on a cinder track. Carlos, who grew up in Harlem, wanted to be an Olympic swimmer until his father informed him that the nearest pool was reserved for whites only. Being a gifted runner, he used his talent as a means for an education, and in 1968 Smith and he agreed to give the black power salute on the medal stand.  Carlos remembers how the Olympic officials sensed that something was about to happen and sent Jesse Owens to talk with them. However, Carlos says, “I had a moral obligation to step up. Morality was a far greater force than the rules and regulations they had.”

Both young athletes followed their conscience, as I assume the football players are doing. However, there is where the comparison ends because the price that Smith and Carlos paid is much worse than that of the overpaid and overly pampered and worshiped football player.

“The fire was all around me,” Carlos recalls. The IOC president ordered Smith and Carlos to be suspended from the US team and the Olympic village. Time magazine showed the Olympic logo with the words Angrier, Nastier, Uglier, instead of Faster, Higher, Stronger. The LA Times accused them of engaging in a “Nazi-like salute”.  They also suffered boos that followed a long silence as 50,000 spectators watched in a pregnant silence as they received their medals with raised fists, and the boos were followed by racial insults.

They were ostracized by their country, the Olympics, and some teammates. However, they knew before stepping up on the medal stand that they had this one opportunity to make a statement about black lives in America during 1968, the year Dr. King was assassinated and black men their age were dying in Vietnam.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos were not well known, and did not have lucrative contracts. But they had the courage during a difficult time for our country to take a stand against racism.

NFL players, as far as I understand, are making the same stand, but they do it in an easier environment that carries much less risk than that of Smith and Carlos.





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