Povich Rewind: John Carlos & Tommie Smith

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Povich Rewind: John Carlos & Tommie Smith
Jun 18, 2020

Protests over racial injustices that carried over into the sports world are not new, as Shirley Povich often wrote and covered during his 75-year career with The Washington Post.

They included Povich’s push for the integration of Major League Baseball and the Washington Redskins; Muhammad Ali losing his heavyweight championship, unfairly Povich wrote, because of Ali’s refusal to accept being drafted into the army and anti-war views in the late 1960s; and U.S. track stars John Carlos and Tommie Smith being expelled from the U.S. Olympic team and headquarters after their protest on the victory stand in Mexico City in 1968 over treatment of blacks in the U.S.

Povich, had he witnessed Colin Kaepernick’s ‘s travails and NFL players kneeling in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, surely would have written of their efforts.

Excerpts of Povich’s coverage of Carlos and Smith expulsion follows:

Mexico City, Oct. 18 (1968) -U.S. Olympic officials conveniently might have chosen to cast a blind eye at two black gloves encasing the upraised fists of two Negro medal winners. It seemed, in fact, that was their intention until the International Olympic Committee brought strong pressure. So they kicked the two sprinters, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, out of the Olympic Village and off the American team.

Whether this strong action by the IOC was necessary is highly debatable. Smith and Carlos, who ran one-three in the 200-meter finals, did not disrupt any Olympic event by their actions on the ceremonial stand. Their sin was the technical one of violating the U.S. Olympic manual which prescribes the official U.S. uniforms on the winner’s stand. Without added adornments.

In the protest of the Negro’s racial position in America, Smith and Carlos showed up in the black-power symbols. They wore knee-length black socks that were conspicuously a new thought. Smith wore a black scarf. And each wore a black glove on one hand.

One American Olympic official said he was willing to overlook these appurtenances, but he was outraged by the failure of Smith and Carlos to respect the American flag and the National Anthem that was being played in salute to their capture of gold and bronze medals.

Throughout the Star Spangled Banner, the two athletes cast their faces to the ground. In contrast, the silver-medal winner, Australia’s Peter Norman, on the stand with them, was at erect attention during the anthem.

When Smith and Carlos marched down from the stands and across the track toward their quarters in the stadium it was with their black-gloved fists still held high and resolute in protest. If it was unpatriotic in the view of most observers, the courage and dignity of their revolt-gesture was inescapable. The mild revolutionionists are rare.

By finishing first and third they had won their chance to exploit their protest. Worldwide television cameras and news services do not tune in on losers. Even those who would deplore the time and the place of their demonstration will concede that a right of protest was theirs. Passage of the Civil Rights Act by the American Congress affirmed the Negroes’ complaint of 300 years of injustice.

This, then, was the chance of Smith and Carlos to tell the world of their militancy and protest with an impact never before offered a Negro, athlete or otherwise. They took that chance, took the consequences, took their medals and were going home. It was not nice they did not give full attention to the American flag, but their sin otherwise was less horrible.

There is a reason for thinking the Olympic panjandrums blundered in dealing out the ultimate punishment to Smith and Carlos. They thus trebled the impact of the entire episode and also the martyrdom of those two militants, who are now better able to carry their cause to more places.

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