Tommie Smith and John Carlos's Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics is a defining image of the civil rights era. Now, a new film commemorates their actions.
The Black Power salute given by Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the medal podium at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City remains one of the defining images of the civil rights era. Now, a new documentary film, setting the athletes’ actions in their historical context, commemorates the events of that night.
Salute – originally filmed in 2008, but only now going on general release in Britain and the United States – focuses on the role of Peter Norman, the white Australian who won the silver medal in the 200m sprint that night and shared the podium with Smith and Carlos, donning a human rights badge in an act of solidarity with their protest.
Nonetheless, it’s Tommie Smith and John Carlos, respectively the gold and bronze medallists that night, who’ve endured in popular consciousness as the faces of the protest. (Smith remains a track and field legend in his own right. At one point, he held eleven world records simultaneously – more than Usain Bolt.)
Both remain highly visible, and closely involved in activism today.
Late last year, Carlos appeared at the Occupy protest in New York’s Zucotti Park,“I am here for you,” he told protestors:
“Why? Because I am you. We’re here forty-three years later because there’s a fight still to be won. This day is not for us but for our children to come.”
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Interviewed in Metro to mark the film’s release, Tommie Smith reflected on his actions that night:
“I wasn’t going to stand there with my hand on my heart while they played my country’s national anthem, and then go back to life as a second-class citizen. So myself and John [Carlos] raised our hands in a silent, non-violent protest.
It wasn’t for Black Power, it was for human rights, and I suffered greatly for that moment. I never raced again, I couldn’t find a job and I struggled to finish my degree.”
Asked by Gavin Esler on Newsnight on Tuesday night whether he accepted the view that sport and politics don’t necessarily mix, the former gold medallist refuted the suggestion:
“You can run – and I could run – but you can’t hide. There were facts that were real to me, and I was blessed to use my talent to help those that did not have a platform to voice an opinion, and this opinion was a unilateral opinion dealing with human rights.”
Forty years after the athletes’ protest, racial politics in America has changed beyond recognition: in Barack Obama, the nation has its first black president, and there’s a growing consensus in favour of liberal immigration reforms.
In 1968, Smith told Esler, “I couldn’t have believed…in that happening”:
“I did what I could to promote a proactive American situation like what is happening now.”
Salute goes on general release at an auspicious moment: weeks before the London Olympics begin, in a world engulfed in an unprecedented array of political, social and economic crises all truly global in their implications.
Asked if a similar protest during a medal ceremony would be appropriate this time, Smith replied:
“Those who do anything except stand there and accept a medal will be looked upon as a radical. If an athlete decides to take that step, they have to accept the lifelong sacrifice.
You can do it, but you will pay for it.”
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