When Tommie Smith and John Carlos lined up on the starting blocks at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, they knew the 200-meter sprint to the finish line would likely lead up to a life-changing experience that would lift millions of Americans. It would also make them social pariahs and the target of condemnation and racism.
Smith won the gold medal, while Carlos earned the bronze medal. But it was their actions after the race that sent shockwaves worldwide. Both men knew they would hold some form of demonstration to protest American inequality during the medal ceremony, but were unsure exactly what they do. Their plan began to take shape inside the well of Olympic stadium when Smith’s wife handed the duo a pair of black gloves. Carlos’ wife supplied beads they would wear around their necks to raise awareness about lynchings. They also decided to take off their shoes to highlight poverty.
With their black-gloved fist raised in the air and their feet covered only by black socks, Smith and Carlos bowed their heads as the “Star-Spangled Banner” blared throughout the stadium. Carlos says he bent his arm in hopes of shielding his face from potential sniper fire. Smith told Sports Illustrated he stood scared on the medal stand and said a prayer during the ordeal. Smith says he was reassured in his protest when he began thinking back on the broken system he was fighting.
“I listened to the national anthem because that’s a powerful thing,” Smith told S.I. “Hearing that anthem knowing how many people died so that belief could remain a part of America.”
Smith and Carlos are revered by many as heroes today, but their actions in Mexico were met with initial vitriol and castigation. Both men were stripped of their medals and suspended by the U.S. Track team. Upon arriving home, they faced a series of death threats. They also were attacked in the media where articles compared them to Nazis and described them as “black-skinned storm troopers.”
As the years passed, Smith and Carlos began receiving recognition for their courage. In 2005, a statue of the men was unveiled on the campus of San Jose State University in California. A statue also stands inside the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. Both men were also honored with Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the 2018 ESPYs.