Several weeks of chaos and lunacy in some major US cities have gotten us away from the supposed objective of dialog, justice, accessibility, and fairness.
When I read an article detailing why the Summer Olympics had been postponed until next year because of COVID-19, my mind went back to when I idolized the great US hurdlers of my day, the sport’s best in the sport’s heyday. Renaldo Nehemiah, Rod Milburn, Roger Kingdom, Edwin Moses, and Andre Phillips were institutional names in sporting households. They were all black, but nobody blinked. The important thing is they were all great and they were all US athletes.
Then, my mind jumped back about a decade earlier to the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. It was my first vivid memory of major Track & Field competition which piqued my interest in the sport.
Americans finished 1st and 3rd in the 200 meter dash that year. American Tommie Smith won the Gold with a world-record time of 19.83 seconds. Australia’s Peter Norman was the Silver medalist in 20.06, and American John Carlos took the Bronze at 20.10.
The medal ceremony began a little later at the podium with each of the three winners having their medals hung around their necks in reverse order of finish. The three then turned to face the US flag as the Star Spangled Banner began. Then we saw Smith and Carlos each raise one black-gloved fist to the sky, standing silently with heads bowed until the anthem concluded. As they left the podium they were booed by the crowd for
the gesture that was front page news in the US and around the world, accompanied by one of the most iconic photos in US history. We knew few details until later.
Smith and Carlos actually received their medals shoeless, but they were wearing black socks to represent black poverty. Smith wore a black scarf around his neck to represent black pride, and Carlos had the top of his tracksuit unzipped as a show of solidarity with all US blue-collar workers. He also wore a beaded necklace in honor of men and women who were killed, hanged, tarred, or drowned generations before, those who no-one had said a prayer for. As it turns out, all three medalists on that podium were wearing Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) badges after Norman expressed empathy with their ideals.
Both US athletes intended to bring black gloves to the event, but Carlos left his in the Olympic Village. It was Norman who suggested Carlos wear Smith’s left-handed glove. That is why Carlos raised his left hand as opposed to his right.
International Olympic Committee president, Avery Brundage, an American, ordered Smith and Carlos suspended from the US team and banned from the Olympic Village. The US Olympic Committee refused. Brundage then threatened to ban the entire US track team. Two athletes were expelled from the games, but thankfully, neither Smith nor Carlos was forced to return his medal.
There was an earlier push for black athletes to boycott the ‘68 games. However, they decided against that. How uninspiring and unmemorable the games might have been without the black US athletes that year - and these two athletes specifically.
The demonstration is regarded as one of the most overtly political statements in the history of the modern Olympics.
In his autobiography, Silent Gesture, Smith stated that the gesture was not a “Black Power” salute but rather a “human rights” salute. So it is easy to understand how the current symbolic protests are over 50 years in the making.
Tremendous advances have been made, but what should have gained significant traction in years has taken generations.
I can respect how Colin Kaepernick erroneously thinks his kneeling protest during the National Anthem is not insulting or disrespectful. I also understand how this mad rush of woke, spoiled athletes hopes to capitalize politically on George Floyd’s death.
However, with few exceptions, opportunities and societal attitudes for minorities, and all underserved people, are extraordinarily better now than in 1968. Back then, Smith and Carlos had no voice, no power, no established influence, no social media pages, and no money to speak of. Their silent protest WAS their only outlet. That is not the case today.
Locally, it is highly commendable how the local groups and entities have addressed the Confederate soldier monument at the Lauderdale County Courthouse. The county, the city, and concerned citizens have worked well together in their efforts to reach a timely, viable, and peaceful solution.