Fifty years ago, this country experienced one of the most unforgettable years as part of maybe the most tumultuous decade in American history.
On October 12, 1968, the historic 19th Olympic Games began in Mexico City. The Mexico City games were the first in Latin America and the first to be held by a Spanish-speaking country. The games were also the third ever held in the last quarter of the year, as the Games were in October instead of the traditional August, due to the region’s rainy season.
But what people remember most about those Games were two black fists.
When U.S. Olympians Tommie Smith (gold) and John Carlos (bronze) raised their fists covered in black leather gloves in the “Black Power” salute as they stood on the podium after the 200-meter race, history was made.
“I looked at my feet in my high socks and thought about all the black poverty I’d seen from Harlem to East Texas. I fingered my beads and thought about the pictures I’d seen of the ‘strange fruit’ swinging from the poplar trees of the South,” Carlos wrote in his 2011 book written with Dave Zirin, “The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment That Changed the World.”
Carlos covered up the “USA” on his uniform with a black T-shirt to “reflect the shame I felt that my country was traveling at a snail’s pace toward something that should be obvious to all people of good will. Then the anthem started and we raised our fists into the air,” he wrote.
“As the anthem began and the crowd saw us raise our fists, the stadium became eerily quiet. For a few seconds, you honestly could have heard a frog piss on cotton. There’s something awful about hearing fifty thousand people go silent, like being in the eye of a hurricane.”
Carlos and Smith, who is currently filming a documentary about his life due to come out around the anniversary, were fed up with what was going on in America at the time, and so they used their platforms, literally, to take a stand. They were immediately asked to leave the stadium and were ostracized within the sports world.
Fifty years later, Colin Kaepernick is dealing with the same thing.
But before we can talk about everything that happened in 1968, and how the Olympics Games were a landmark moment for black athletes speaking out about social issues, we need to start with the Muhammad Ali Summit that took place the year prior, which served as a catalyst for the ‘68 Games.
“The late 60s and the 70s was politically and socially the most contentious time in American history. The youth of America — of all races, ethnicities, genders, and gender identities — were fighting at the same time to shake off the tight harness of the 50s mentality that Father Knows Best,” Kareem Abdul-Jabbar told the Daily News.
On June 4, 1967, Abdul-Jabbar and several top black athletes came together in Cleveland to show support for Ali in his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War due to his religious and personal beliefs.
“The purpose of the summit wasn’t to organize a protest, it was to determine the validity of Muhammad Ali’s claims that he would not accept being drafted based on his religious beliefs as a Muslim,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “Everyone was not on board at first in supporting him — including several athletes who were ex-military — which is why we questioned him intensely over a long period of time. In the end, he convinced us of his religious sincerity and we supported him.”
That event was a precursor to what would happen with Carlos and Smith in Mexico City, and to the actions that the athletes of today are taking.
“In 2018, there wouldn’t be such a summit because there are enough people who support athletes expressing their conscience,” said Abdul-Jabbar. But if there was one, Abdul-Jabbar has some ideas on who would need to be there.
“Colin Kaepernick, LeBron James, Steph Curry, Serena Williams, the women soccer players at UCLA, the five cheerleaders at Georgia’s Kennesaw State University, Kenny Sills, Albert Wilson, and many, many more would all be invited to a summit to discuss the importance of the First Amendment and why everyone isn’t more interested in protecting that then worrying about who stands or kneels,” he explained.
A conversation focused on the importance of Free Speech would be critical for athletes of this era, as they have a tool at their disposal that generations before them didn’t: social media.
“The athletes of today are in a very unique position. Their level of notoriety is obviously greater than it was 50 years ago. They have more access to platforms and their level of income is a lot greater,” said Katrina Adams, President and CEO of the United States Tennis Association and the Chairperson of the U.S. Open. “There are probably more people that look up to them and respect the athletes of today than 40 or 50 years ago. It’s a great opportunity for them to express themselves.”
As strange as a year that 2018 has been, it has nothing on the drama and historic events that occurred in 1968. In April of that year, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Two months later, Robert Kennedy was gunned down. We were also still seven years away from the end of the Vietnam War.
“The tragedies that happened along the way, including the assassinations of Malcolm X, Dr. King, the Kennedys, and many civil rights workers, only galvanized people to push ahead,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “So, it was a horrible, painful time, but it was also an exhilarating and triumphant time. We changed things.”
In the sports world of 1968, a college kid by the name of O.J. Simpson started the first day of the year off by going for 128 yards and two touchdowns in the Rose Bowl. Later that year, he would win the Heisman Trophy.
The Detroit Tigers captured their third World Series title despite riots that ravaged the city.
Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics defeated Elgin Baylor and Jerry West’s Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals.
Abdul-Jabbar’s UCLA Bruins beat a North Carolina team that featured Charlie Scott, the first black scholarship athlete in the school’s history, in the national championship game.
Arthur Ashe became the first black man to win the U.S. Open in tennis.
And in the Fall of 1968, Marlin Briscoe of the Denver Broncos became the first black quarterback to start in the AFL when his team faced the Cincinnati Bengals.
“It’s just so many different historic things that happened in the year 1968, it was unfathomable,” Briscoe said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. “It just seemed poetic justice, so to speak, that the color barrier be broken that year at that position. For some reason, I was ordained to be the litmus test for that. I think I did a good job.”
But as black athletes were making strides, breaking down barriers, and coming together so that their voices could be heard, it didn’t mean that everybody was on board.
Ten days after Carlos and Smith raised their fist in Mexico City, George Foreman won a gold medal in boxing and bowed before the judges just before prancing about the ring waving a small American Flag.
“That’s for college kids,” he said when discussing Carlos and Smith’s protests, even though he was 19 at the time, the same age of a “college kid.”
“I had a lot of flak. In those days, nobody was applauded for being patriotic. The whole world was protesting something. But if I had to do it all again, I’d have waved two flags,” said Foreman in a 2012 article with BBC.
The situation is reminiscent to what we’re seeing today in the NFL, as players like Colin Kaepernick and his former teammate Eric Reid broke away from the Players Coalition after having disagreements on which direction the group should go when dealing with social issues. Reid recently described the Players Coalition as “an NFL-funded subversion group,” given that they agreed to partner with the NFL in a deal that is supposedly going to dedicate $89 million to social justice efforts and programs.
Fifty years later, athletes are still trying to figure out the best way to bring awareness to injustices like racism and police brutality, while their own kind are trying to undermine them.
In July, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott implied that fellow black athletes weren’t taking enough action and were too caught up in protesting, despite countless examples of athletes of color across the sports world giving back to their communities, opening schools, and even meeting with government officials about changing laws that affect communities of color.
“If they believe it’s going to make a change and it’s going to make a difference then power to them,” said Prescott. “But for me, I believe in doing something, action. It’s not about taking a knee. It’s not necessarily about standing. We can find a different place to make our country better. And obviously I’m not naive and I’m very aware of the injustice that we have going on, but I’m about the actions that we can do to fix it rather than the silent protest.”
Prescott has also admitted that he isn’t currently working on anything that would help raise awareness for social injustices.
“The athletes of the late 60s had limited power but used it well. The athletes of today have tremendous power but may not always be interested in collectively using it,” said Johnnie Ashe, the younger brother of Arthur Ashe.
That tremendous power isn’t just limited to male athletes, either.
In the past, female athletes have held press conferences to address their concerns about police brutality, worn Black Lives Matters shirts and other paraphernalia in support of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile who were murdered by police officers in 2016, and have even taken a knee before WNBA and professional soccer games.
“From a women’s perspective, I think it’s meaningful,” said Adams.
“It’s important for our young girls to know that sports can be a huge part of their development as an individual, and sports can empower them and put them on a platform of respect.”
A recent example of this were the words from Serena Williams after the controversial ending to the U.S. Open Finals last month.
“But I’m going to continue to fight for women and fight for us to have equal,” she said. “(Alize) Cornet should be able to take her shirt off without getting a fine. This is outrageous. I just feel like the fact that I have to go through this is just an example for the next person that has emotions that wants to express themselves and wants to be a strong woman, and they’re going to be allowed to do that because of today. Maybe it didn’t work out for me, but it’s going to work out for the next person.”
“Female athletes of today are empowered,” said Adams. They’ve always been empowered, but now they’re feeling it, and they’re able to speak out against the inequalities that have been put before them.”
And for an older generation, watching younger athletes of color step up to use their voice is a wonderful sight to see.
“It’s miraculous. Because we went through a cycle where a whole lot of black athletes didn’t do anything but make money and spend money. And now we have this trend,” said the 70-year-old Ashe. “I think there is an awareness of the black athlete because of what’s going on in the White House. And that in itself is great because it makes so much more of a difference.”
But as much as things have changed over the past 50 years, it’s clear that some things haven’t. Progress can be funny like that sometimes.
Because while things are better in 2018 when it comes to racism and social injustices than they were 1968, they are far from perfect. And despite the progress that’s been made, we will always need athletes to be voices and catalysts for change.