Written by:
Omar Khan

Reflections on Mexico 1968

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Last Friday the Runnymede Trust co-hosted ‘Fists of Defiance’, an evening with Tommie Smith, the gold medal winner who iconically rose his fist with bronze medallist John Carlos. Today is the 50th anniversary of what Smith calls his ‘silent gesture’ in Mexico City at the 1968 Olympic Games.

The overwhelming feeling during and after the event was inspiration and awe, and gratitude for a man who sacrificed so much personally for a wider cause. But there’s so much more to reflect on: as much as what we haven’t understood and learned from his experience as what we have learned.

Perhaps the most important non-learning from Tommie Smith’s act is the shorthand that most people use to refer to his act: a ‘black power’ salute. It’s obvious that Tommie Smith (and John Carlos) were primarily focused on the racism and injustice affecting black people in the United States, and were connected to a wider civil rights struggle in America. But Smith strongly rejects that his raised fist was a ‘black power salute’ (as described even by Wikipedia), and instead was a ‘silent gesture’ for human rights everywhere.

Smith’s words should count for more than Wikipedia, but for any doubters, watching the 2008 documentary ‘Fists of Defiance’ and learning more about the history behind those events in Mexico 1968 confirms his account. Smith and Carlos were part of the ‘Olympic Project for Human Rights’, which again signals what their gesture (not a ‘protest’) was about. By not wearing shoes, they were indicating the poverty of black people in America, while the bowed heads represented prayer, and the olive tree in his hands the message of peace. And here’s what Tommie Smith has said about the fist:

‘The fist represented power… a need to move forward proactively. Not necessarily the black pride of an illegitimate type of fight with the background of militancy. Militancy had nothing to do with that victory stand’

That the majority population were afraid of the fist, that they viewed it as a ‘threat’ and ‘radical’ speaks more to prejudices about unreasonable, violent black people than about what the raised fist actually represented. That Tommie Smith still has to explain this in almost apologetic words reveals the depth and extent of these racist tropes about black people. That any form of resistance, even a silent and considered one, is interpreted as threatening, unreasonable and narrowly separatist, rather than as a universal claim about human rights and dignity.

This failure to read what African American and race equality advocates actually demand unfortunately persists, despite most racial justice organisations and movements (including Rhodes Must Fall) making claims for economic and structural change. These of course including tacklng institutional racism, especially in the criminal justice system, but also anti-poverty strategy and (in the case of Black Lives Matter) basic income, policies that would benefit the wider population. The misreading of racial justice claims as mere ‘special interests’ is sadly also driving an increasingly false analogy with white majoritarian rights as somehow morally or empirically similar. The Americans seeking 'white rights' in 1968 were obviously not interested in human rights, and their descendants are making the same morally bankrupt arguments in 2018.

Tommie Smith’s gesture captured what Martin Luther King Jr. called the three social evils – racism (the fist), war (the olive tree) and poverty (the socks). And consider the demands of the Olympic Human Rights Committee that Smith and Carlos and all the African American athletes in 1968:

·         Banning South Africa and Rhodesia from international competition

·         The restoration of Muhammad Ali’s world heavyweight boxing title

·         Avery Brundage to sept down as President of the International Olympic Committee

·         Hiring of more African American assistant coaches (then only 2% of coaches, vs 38% of athletes being African American)

These demands focused on injustice, and the last demand for better representation is still a long way off even in 2018. Smith and Carlos were joined in a less observed protest by the Australian silver medallist Peter Norman. Norman wore a human rights pin, arguably an early example of a ‘white ally’ who listened to Smith and Carlos in not raising his fist. Norman had previously supported Aboriginal rights, as a result of which he was blocked from participating in the 1972 Olympics, and shunned by the Australian sporting establishment. In 2006, when he died, Tommie Smith and John Carlos were Peter Norman’s pallbearers, indicating the strong personal connection between these three men, and the universality of their cause for human rights and so against racial injustice.

During his conversation with Michelle Moore, Runnymede’s trustee, Smith repeatedly referred to his ‘sacrifice’ and the hoped for ‘redemption’. By this he was obviously referring to the huge sacrifice paid by him and John Carlos, and their families, especially their wives and children. Both men ended up struggling with the death threats and long-term consequences, living in poverty, and rejected by the American athletics establishment. Smith wasn’t just any athlete, but the fastest man in the world, whose 200 meters time of 19.83 would not be broken for more than a decade and would have seen him just .05 seconds behind Usain Bolt in the silver medal place in Rio 2016. Yet his athletic achievements were eclipsed the moment he stood off the podium, to a chorus of boos in the Mexico City stadium, prompting another raised fist of defiance from him and Carlos.

Fifty years on Smith didn’t, however, dwell much on his personal sacrifice, but spoke clearly and at times with real humour about this sacrifice being necessary for wider social change. When asked directly, ‘Would you do anything differently today?’, he gave a decisive ‘No’ in response, receiving a standing ovation from the over 500 people in attendance.

By redemption Smith explicitly tied the struggle of African Americans to social change and the affirmation of human rights, but significantly also for white Americans – for everyone. The only way to redeem the values of equality, human rights and democracy in the United States and throughout the world was to foreground and tackle racism. This was also the only route to redemption for the many individuals who continued to support racism and its consequences.

Runnymede was founded 50 years ago this month to ‘nail the lie’ of racism, mainly through providing evidence about the extent of inequalities and discrimination. But that work cannot bring change by itself; as Tommie Smith reminds us, we not only need to be driven by a commitment to justice and equality, but willing to act on those values. His words of goodbye to me – 'never quit' – are ones that he somehow manages to live despite all he sacrificed, and that should be an inspiration to all of us seeking to dismantle racism, poverty and war. He has survived, stronger. Fifty years on from his fists of defiance, Tommie Smith (and John Carlos –  and Peter Norman) are a model of standing up for what you believe in, speaking truth to power, and changing the world.  

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