Black Power protest, 49 years later

Remember? Remember the Titans?

You may recall this scene, early in the movie, when football players Julius Campbell and Gerry Bertier begin fighting over Campbell’s poster of the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games protest in their dorm room. Here’s a link to an 80-second snippet from that 2000 sports drama:

black power

L to R: Peter Norman, Tommie Smith, John Carlos on the platform for the 200-meter medal ceremony, October 16, 1968. Note the Olympic Project for Human Rights badges on the left side of their warm-up jackets.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s Black Power stand on the 200-meter dash medal platform took place 49 years ago today – October 16, 1968. It’s worth reflecting on, given recent NFL “take a knee” protests over the National Anthem.

FIRST: CONTEXT IS ESSENTIAL. In 1968 racial inequality threatened to split our nation apart. The Voting Rights and Civil Rights Act had begun to redress decades of injustices, but progress wasn’t coming quickly. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated, and as a result riots broke out in more than 100 U.S. cities. There were 45 lives lost and 15,000 arrests in these riots, which (ironically) took place in reaction to the violent killing of the nation’s greatest advocate for non-violent change.

Riots continued in different cities across the US. for months following Rev. Dr. King’s death. In my hometown, seven people (including three Cleveland Police officers) were killed in the Glenville Riots that July.

There was a movement among African American athletes selected for the U.S. Olympic Team to boycott the Summer Olympics. As a group they chose to compete, but some also sought to raise awareness about injustice and inequality, a movement they called the Olympic Project for Human Rights. Others, such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, chose not to play for the U.S.A. basketball team at the Olympics – personal boycotts based upon conscience.

That is the backdrop to bear in mind when reflecting on what Tommie Smith, John Carlos, and silver medal winner Peter Norman of Australia (who helped Smith and Carlos and was severely punished for it in his apartheid homeland) did that day.

Carlos and Smith knew that they could be suspended from the U.S. Olympic Team for their protest, but reaction was worse than they even realized. International Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage (nicknamed “slavery Avery”) ordered Team U.S.A. to suspend the two and then expelled them from the games. They were stripped of their medals and returned home, where public opinion was overwhelmingly against their stand.  Then a sports writer in Chicago, Brett Musburger said Smith and Carlos acted “like a couple of black-skinned storm troopers” who were “ignoble,” “juvenile,” and “unimaginative.” A Time magazine story described their actions as nasty and ugly.

“It was really courageous … they knew that their lives would never be the same,” said Ro Brown, legendary play-by-play voice at the University of New Orleans. The two received death threats for many years afterward.

(Brown did a terrific explanation of the times and the protest stand several years ago. Here’s a link to that video. )

LINKAGE, BACK AND FORWARD: Smith and Carlos were following in a tradition and pattern of non-violent protest which Rosa Parks (Montgomery Bus Boycott) Dr. King (Birmingham Civil Rights) and others had set down for more than a dozen years prior to 1968. Parks, Dr. King, and many more took grave personal risks when they protested, going to jail and facing fines and public condemnation.

When Muhammad Ali refused to report to the draft and serve in the Army in 1967, he was also exhibiting a form of non-violent protest. He was convicted of draft evasion, and suspended from boxing for three years in the prime of his career. He sacrificed boxing for his personal beliefs.  (The Supreme Court overturned his conviction in 1971)

Ali, Smith and Carlos took these sacrifices to draw attention to causes, just as Parks and King had done. Their linkage of sports to injustice seemed inappropriate to many. But come 1980, President Jimmy Carter chose to use his influence and power to affect a complete boycott of participation by the U.S. and 65 other nations at the Summer Olympics in Moscow. The reason? The Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan months before, and the boycott was part of a multi-pronged effort which the U.S. led to expel the Soviets. Sports became firmly entrenched as a tool in both diplomacy and politics.

Increasingly, athletes – especially professionals – are choosing to sometimes leverage their hero status to take a stand. LeBron James routinely will Tweet support for candidates and causes, as do other superstars. It has become a normal occurrence.

WHY THIS SITUATION IS DIFFERENT: Let’s flash forward to 2017. Four different factors have coincided to make protesting the National Anthem, which then San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick initiated last year, far different than what has come before.

  1. Change? Not enough – The election of Barack Obama as our nation’s 44th President meant different things to different elements of our society. African Americans believed that there would be tremendous progress in areas such as inequality under Obama. It didn’t materialize. In reaction, some took to protests and demonstrations. Some of these turned violent. Some white Americans had the same expectations upon going to the ballot box to elect President Obama in 2008 and 2012. They were disappointed, although (of course) no one ever says publicly “I wish I’d voted differently.”   (See No. 3 below.)
  2. Violence, especially against police – Many American view Black Lives Matter and other groups as assaulting a foundational underpinning of our society when they began protesting against police officers. Police officers are held in high regard in our land. Forbes and other media outlets conducting surveys frequently find that police officers are among the Top Ten in “Most Admired” professions in the U.S. A 2014 Gallup Survey found police officers to have the 6th highest ratings among all professions in the area of honesty and ethical standards. Against this backdrop, there has been a campaign against police officers in the media, on college campuses, and in other elements of our society. Cries of police brutality from some – right or wrong – have coincided with a dramatic increase in ambush-style murders of police officers in major cities. Police see themselves as under attack like never before.
  3. The Trump Effect – Donald Trump’s election in November 2016 is in part the political pendulum swinging back in the opposite direction in which it traveled back in 2008. Millions who cast ballots for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 voted differently last year. President’s Trump’s base is more conservative, and his support of the American flag, the military, and law enforcement are part of his allure as chief executive. The mass media can no longer be the agenda setting function it once did, as President Trump employs his Twitter account to serve that function.For President Trump, respect of the flag, of the police, and of the military are all core values. He sees “taking a knee” for the National Anthem as both anathema and as a great opportunity to further rally his political base of support. So the protests unwittingly play to his benefit.

4.  A lack of sacrifice – Perhaps the greatest difference between 1968 and 2017 is that today’s protesting athletes have lost trust with a basic tenet which Dr. King Jr. and others realized.  Parks, James Farmer (a predecessor of King’s), Dr. King, and others knew that when they had nothing to gain and everything to lose, protesting the evils of the status quo would draw popular support. Imagines of helpless children being attacked with fire hoses and police dogs (which happened in Birmingham in 1963) tells the story of racial injustice far better than a 2017 millionaire athlete choosing to “take a knee” during the playing of the National Anthem.  The average NFL player’s salary is $1.9 million. Smith and Carlos gained nothing economically from their protest in Mexico City.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: