It's late August in Beijing, and the U.S. has just taken basketball gold. But while everyone awaits a celebration by LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade and Dwight Howard, there's a somber look on the athletes' faces as they climb the medal stand. Suddenly, their black-gloved fists are raised to the heavens, reminiscent of the protest at the 1968 Mexico City Games. Shockingly, with little regard for themselves, multimillionaire Olympians have decided to make a high-profile call for human rights in China, honoring the legacy of Tommie Smith and John Carlos without worrying about what it will cost.
We can always dream, can't we?
We can dream that at least some of today's athletes will remember how Smith and Carlos captured gold and bronze, respectively, in the 200 meters, and why they raised their fists in a "black power" salute for the world to see. We can dream about the future the two runners hoped for. And we can be thankful that on July 20, long after their righteous, justifiable act, two of America's most distinguished Olympians will be honored with the Arthur Ashe Award at the ESPYs.
"Let's face it," says Harry Edwards, the sociologist, civil rights activist and former Black Panther Party member who sparked the whole thing. "In any other country on the face of this earth, Tommie, John and I would be either dead or in somebody's dungeon."
What happened to Smith and Carlos was bad enough. They were emotionally bludgeoned with death threats and labeled unpatriotic because of a simple gesture of defiance. It began with Edwards, then a professor at San Jose State, who'd been looking for ways to call attention to his belief that the civil rights movement had not gone far enough to eradicate injustices for black Americans. Setting his sights on sports as a medium for the message, Edwards organized a group called the Olympic Project for Human Rights, which called for an all-out boycott of the 1968 Summer Games. That ambitious goal wasn't attained, but with the help of Smith and Carlos, two track stars at San Jose State, it morphed into a historic moment.
As "The Star-Spangled Banner" played and the American flag rose above the medal stand, both athletes bowed their heads. Then Smith, wearing a black glove on his right hand, closed his fist and raised it as a sign of black power. Carlos raised his left, black-gloved fist as a symbol of black unity. The black scarf around Smith's neck represented black pride. Their black socks (neither man was wearing shoes) represented economic hardship; at the time, 29% of Americans living in poverty were black (blacks made up 19% of the U.S. population).
The backlash was swift and immediate. Smith and Carlos were suspended from the national team and banished from the Olympic Village. America, shamed and exposed, was enraged by their actions. "Once we got back, we were ostracized, even by our own," Smith says. "Folks were scared, man. No jobs. We couldn't find work. People even told us, 'We can't get close to you guys because we have our own jobs to protect.' These were my friends. At least they were my friends before I left for Mexico City."
And Edwards? His career was over at San Jose State. "And of course," he says, "[FBI director] J. Edgar Hoover took a personal hand in managing, let us say, my portfolio at the FBI—3,500 pages of documents, speeches, communications from informants who'd been placed in my classes. I was persona non grata at most athletic venues, as well as abroad. Throw that in with the death threats, and it was a pretty stiff hand."
Life eventually dealt them better cards. Both Smith and Carlos went on to teach and coach, and Edwards is a professor emeritus at UC Berkeley. It's nice to see recognition for the two former medalists on the eve of another Olympics. But at the same time, to participate in the Beijing Games, athletes are now required to sign waivers promising that they won't engage in any kind of protest or demonstration at Olympic venues. It's ironic at the very least. Not to mention pathetic, weak and un-American. That's right, I said it!
Olympic organizers can try all they want to keep the Games nonpolitical. That won't stop Tibetans at home and abroad from protesting Chinese repression. And it certainly shouldn't stop today's U.S. athletes, collectively and individually more powerful than ever before, from saying or doing something that transcends sports instead of being limited by them. I don't care if it's in the form of a small quote or a big gesture. Nor do I care if it's from LeBron, Tyson Gay or whoever wins the modern pentathlon.
In recent history we've seen Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods break records and break down stereotypes. But let's be real: When it comes to political activism, American sports has lacked a spokesman for years. Muhammad Ali and Jim Brown are long gone from the spotlight, and Ashe left the stage far too soon. The closest thing we have to a truth-teller today is Charles Barkley, who's conveniently dismissed as "Charles just bein' Charles" whenever folks want to ignore the legitimacy of his criticism.
Think about it! The African-American stars of the 1930s through the 1960s, from Jesse Owens to Jackie Robinson to Bill Russell, met the obligations of their time. They helped break down segregation—what Edwards terms "the absolute cultural and political presumption that blacks were, by genetic design, unfit to compete with and against whites in sports."
Decades later, despite (or perhaps because of) riches and fame and a significant decline in overt racist practices, today's athletes show very little interest in standing up for or against something bigger than themselves—whether it's war, tyranny, economic deprivation or global warming. Who among them will have the conscience to embrace the challenges that lie ahead, no matter what the sponsors or, yes, the TV networks, think?
"Remember, no one saw Martin Luther King coming," Edwards says. "He was a young, second-level preacher. Nobody saw Malcolm X coming out of prison. Nobody saw Tommie Smith, John Carlos and Harry Edwards coming out of San Jose State. I'm convinced that, irrespective of what we think we see from a social and political standpoint relative to this generation of athletes, there's somebody out there whom we simply don't see coming. I don't think we are wise enough or visionary enough to say that this generation is lost or that this generation can't get it done. Keep the faith."
We know what the hope is. But what about the reality, in light of all the money on the table and its tremendous power to manipulate? Think about those antiprotest waivers, the ones everybody is apparently all too willing to sign, and tell me that any modern-day star will use his or her platform to speak up about terrorism, sweatshops in third-world countries or other unspeakable human rights violations.
Which leaves us with a question: Do we even care anymore? The way Tommie Smith and John Carlos did—and still do?
For a brief history of athletes and protests check out this photo gallery.
Give Stephen A. a piece of your mind. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. But keep it clean!