During the 1960s, San Jose State University was at the epicenter of the track and field world. Known as “Speed City” because of its world class sprinters, SJSU held the keys to America’s gold medal chances at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City.
At the same time, city streets from San Francisco to New York were in turmoil.
On March 7, 1965, future U.S. Congressman John Lewis, then just 25 years old, led an estimated 600 civil rights marchers across Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge. The main objective of their civil disobedience was to call attention to the lack of voting rights for the area’s Black citizens, and to seek the elimination of discriminatory literacy tests and poll taxes.
On the other side of the bridge Alabama state troopers, and a pack of hastily deputized local men, were waiting to disperse the crowd by any means necessary. Suddenly, the law enforcement officers attacked the marchers leaving 17 peaceful citizens hospitalized with various injuries including Lewis who suffered a fractured skull. Television news broadcasts of the event, and the bloody marchers left in its aftermath, were beamed across the nation and sparked support for the voting rights movement.
In August of 1965, Congress unanimously passed the landmark Voting Rights Act. Less than a week later rioting started when Los Angeles police performed a traffic stop then arrested a Black motorist in the largely African-American neighborhood of Watts. It ignited a week of bloodshed and arson that nearly leveled Watts, leaving 34 dead. The following summer, Chicago, Cleveland and approximately 40 other U.S. cities experienced racial unrest. Then, in 1967, chaos erupted in Newark, N.J. leaving 26 dead and 1,500 wounded. That same week rioting consumed Detroit leading to the death of 43 people, and leaving 1,000 wounded.
On April 4, 1968, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis igniting several days of violence in over 120 U.S. cities and leaving at least 46 people dead.
Two months later, on the night he won the California and South Dakota presidential primaries, Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. Kennedy, a liberal democrat and former U.S. Attorney General, campaigned on the promise of civil rights for America’s minorities.
By 1968, America was at a breaking point and seemed desperate for change and progress. Protests and riots became common events across the country with particular fervor in the Bay Area and at its college campuses.
At San Jose State, Dr. Harry Edwards was aware of the plight of Black athletes and students at the university from his days as a scholarship athlete there in the early 1960s. “I had to live with the freshman basketball coach for a month,” Edwards recalled of his days at SJSU. “All the housing was segregated.”
After graduating from SJSU with honors in 1964, Edwards was awarded a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship and began work on his Ph.D in sociology at Cornell University. Two years later, he returned to San Jose State as a part-time professor and discovered little had changed. The campus had few Black professors and no Black coaches. On-campus housing was scarce for African-American athletes and local landlords were reluctant to rent to them.
Elsewhere on campus, track stars and Olympic gold medal hopefuls Tommie Smith, John Carlos and Lee Evans found themselves restricted by the racial inequities that existed in housing, employment, campus social life and most significantly, academics. According to Dr. Edwards, Black student athletes were directed away from business, science and humanities and funneled into physical education or programs that kept them eligible to compete in intercollegiate sports. This form of institutional racism made it difficult for people of color to graduate with a marketable degree.
“On San Jose State’s campus, if you were Black, you could major in one of three things: physical education, probation and parole, because Blacks will always be going to prison and need some probation officers and social welfare,” Edwards said with sarcasm. “Those were the three things that Blacks majored in. I had to petition to major in sociology, which was in the same department as social work and probation and parole.”
With the 1968 Summer Olympics on the horizon, Smith, Carlos and Evans recognized they had the opportunity and platform to be a force for change and joined SJSU’s United Black Students for Action (UBSA) in September 1967.
“Smith, Carlos and Lee Evans are three of the greatest track and field athletes on the greatest Olympic team that the United States ever fielded,” Dr. Edwards said. “So they’re great athletes, winners. This is the key with athletes and their impact in terms of social change and sport. The other thing is that they were conscientiously committed to social justice.”
Almost immediately they were tested. As the 1967 school year began, the USBA, under lead organizer and spokesperson Dr. Edwards, demanded equitable changes at SJSU for students and athletes of color. In doing, so they organized the school’s Black football players and threatened a boycott. If the administration failed to meet the USBA’s demands, the African-American players would not participate in the Spartans’ 1967 season opening game with the University of Texas-El Paso.
Sensing a possible confrontation at Spartan Stadium between protesters and counter-protesters, and the threat of racial violence, SJSU president Robert Clark canceled the football game. The decision seemed to rankle law and order politicians of the day. California governor Ronald Reagan was appalled by Clark’s decision and called it “an appeasement to lawbreakers.”
“Ronald Reagan said that he wanted both me and Dr. Clark fired, and that he was going to send in the National Guard,” Dr. Edwards said. “Then, of course, the Hells Angels said we’re going to come in with guns to help support the National Guard. Then you get Black groups saying we’re going to come in to protect the Blacks. And the next thing you know, Dr. Clark said, “Harry, what do you think our options are?” I said, “This is not worth bloodshed, cancel the game.”
Reagan’s vocal reaction to the canceled game brought national publicity to USBA and its cause. The east coast media picked up on the story and the New York Times claimed it was the first time a college football game was canceled “because of racial unrest.”
Meanwhile, the track stars of “Speed City” were training for the greatest sporting spectacle of its time, the 1968 Summer Olympics. Three of the world’s top sprinters, Smith, Carlos and Evans, all members of the Spartans track team, prepared to showcase their talents in Mexico City. Off the track, they connected with Edwards who also was organizing the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) to protest racial segregation.
OPHR focused on the welfare of Black people globally and advocated for Black athletes.
Among the issues OPHR sought to rectify were:
- improving the welfare of Black people globally
- ending apartheid in South Africa and banning the country from the Olympics
- adding Black coaches to the United States Olympic team
- removing International Olympic Committee chairman Avery Brundage
- advocating for Black athletes
- restoration of conscientious objector Muhammad Ali’s boxing title
Initially, OPHR threatened a boycott by all Black athletes at the 1968 Summer Olympic Games if their demands were not met. But after discussion with several Olympic hopefuls, Smith and Carlos realized it would be unconscionable to persuade others to abandon their dreams of a gold medal.
“Many athletes thought that, ‘Man, I trained all my life to go to the Olympics,’ ” Carlos said. “I promised my kids I was gonna bring a medal home. My church is counting on me and my community’s counting on me.’ So, you know, it was kinda hard for them to bite into it… They made it clear they understood the necessity of boycotting. But it was a big chunk out of their lives to step up and say, ‘Man, I’m gonna sacrifice an Olympic gold. I’m gonna sacrifice a berth on the Olympic team.’ And we didn’t feel that we had any right to tell them that you must do this.”
When the boycott was called off Carlos initially was disenchanted and chose not to go to Mexico City. But after some deep meditation he changed his mind.
“I thought, ‘If you stay home, do you think the person that gets up on the victory stand in your place would represent your thoughts, your feelings, your vibes?’” Carlos said. “And when that came to me, man, it was like automatic. Like somebody hit a switch, and I said, ‘I’m going to the games.”
Smith also was ambivalent about a boycott and not sure it would help the Black community achieve its goal.
“There have been a lot of marches, protests, and sit-ins on the situation of Negro ostracism in the US,” Smith said in Race, Culture and the Revolt of the Black Athlete: The 1968 Olympic Protests and Their Aftermath. “I don’t think this boycott of the Olympics will stop the problem, but I think people will see that we will not sit on our haunches and take this sort of stuff. Our goal would not be just to improve conditions for ourselves and our teammates but to improve things for the entire Negro community.”
UCLA basketball star Lew Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) was one prominent collegiate athlete who decided to sit out the games.
“It was too difficult for me to get enthusiastic about representing a country that refused to represent me or others of my color,” Abdul-Jabbar wrote in his book, COACH WOODEN AND ME . ”I was grateful, but I also thought it disingenuous to show appreciation unless all people had the same opportunities. Just because I had made it to a lifeboat didn’t mean I could forget those who hadn’t. Or not try to keep the next ship from sinking.”
U.S. sprinters Smith, Carlos and Evans considered their Olympic platform through a different lens. They realized they still had an opportunity to address their concerns about discrimination and human rights before millions of spectators.
“I had a button on my sweatpants, a sweat jacket and then I had the button on my jersey. I ran with the button for every race to emphasize this is what it’s about. It’s about human rights. It’s not about Black rights or Asian rights. It’s about humanity. It’s about all people’s rights.”
Then, just 10 days before Mexican president Gustavo Díaz Ordaz opened the Olympic Games, students in Mexico City were violently attacked during a protest intended to shine the spotlight on Ordaz’ authoritative regime. The rally sought a halt to state violence, accountability for police and military abuses, the release of political prisoners and free speech.
The peaceful protest of unarmed students was broken up by Mexican military troops, snipers and police officers who fired into the crowd killing as many as 300 people (official estimates of the dead still remain uncertain). The incident intensified the sprinters’ resolve to make a political statement at the Olympics.
“We decided that it was up to each of us to figure out how we wanted to make our voices heard, “ Smith said. “I knew if I did nothing, there would be no chance to make any progress. I couldn’t do nothing.” (from Raise a Fist, Take a Knee: Race and the Illusion of Progress in Modern Sports, John Feinstein)
On October 15, 1968, just two weeks after the protesting students were shot down in Mexico City, the gun sounded to begin the 200-meter dash featuring Smith and Carlos. Smith sprinted away with the gold medal in a world record time of 19:83. Australian Peter Norman won the silver. Carlos captured the bronze.
As the medal ceremony was about to begin, Smith and Carlos appeared on the podium shoeless and in black socks to symbolize the poverty many Black people experience in the United States. On their USA track uniforms they displayed OPHR (Olympic Project for Human Rights) buttons. Silver medalist Norman, who was keenly aware of what was about to take place, also wore an OPHR button to stand in solidarity with Smith and Carlos.
As the “Star-Spangled Banner” began to play, Smith and Carlos bowed their heads and raised their black-gloved fists toward the sky. The resulting photo created one of the most visceral and transcendent moments in the history of the confluence of sports and the fight for equality. The nation watched the Black Power Salute as the 1968 Olympics marked the first time an American network broadcast the Games.
Smith later said the raised fists were never about a hatred for America but “a cry for freedom and for human rights…We had to be seen because we couldn’t be heard.”
The peaceful protest by Smith and Carlos had immediate repercussions. They were suspended from the U.S. Olympic team and forced to leave the Olympic Village. Back home in the USA they were subjected to death threats and many Americans considered them traitors. Employment opportunities and commercial endorsements wilted away.
According to Douglas Hartmann, author of Race, Culture, and the Revolt of the Black Athlete, Smith always indicated that the Black Power salute “stood for the community and power in Black America. He [Smith] didn’t want to be seen as a radical. He was far more of a kind of traditional American individualist. He was planning to go into the military. He was a patriot. He thought we needed to make a lot of changes on race, but it wasn’t necessarily from a radical political point of view.”
Evans, a third member of SJSU’s “Speed City,” went on to earn two gold medals at the 1968 games. He posted a world record time of 43.86 at the 400 meters. Later, he earned gold as the anchor leg in the 1,600 meter relay, which also set a world record. While accepting his gold medal in the relay, Evans and fellow African-American medalists Larry James and Ron Freeman wore black berets on the stand as a sign of protest.
The actions of the OPHR athletes struck a nerve in Black communities. The Black Power salute provided positive reinforcement for underprivileged individuals and engendered Black pride, racial identity and self-worth. The Black Power movement quickly became an influential part of popular culture, education and politics. The movement’s eye-opening challenge to inequality and discrimination inspired other groups, such as Women, Latinx, Native Americans, Asian Americans and LGBTQ+ communities.
“When we look at these athletes there are two things that we have to be aware of right out of the shoot,” Edwards said. “One, that they are absolutely superlative athletes. And the second thing is that they were very much aware of and committed to the struggle for freedom, justice, and equality, the struggle to form that more perfect union. Beyond that, I think that they were impressed by the fact that you didn’t just have to be an athlete. You could be an intellectual.”
In the years after the Olympic protest the impact of Smith, Carlos and Evans was recognized internationally. They were acknowledged as catalysts for change in America and abroad.
These Olympic athletes understood the power and gravity of their position as superior athletes and were growing their commitment to change. Athletes that are winners are then provided “with a great stage, that they can transform into a platform, whether it’s Smith and Carlos, whether it’s Kaepernick, whether it’s Ariyana Smith, whether it’s Simone Biles, whether it’s Megan Rapinoe,” Dr. Edwards said.
Decades later, the 1968 Olympic medalists were acknowledged for their efforts. By 2003, Smith, Carlos and Evans had all been inducted to the USA Track and Field Hall of Fame. In 2005 a statue was erected in honor of Smith and Carlos at SJSU. In 2008, Smith and Carlos were honored with the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage. And in 2016, President Barack Obama provided recognition for Smith and Carlos at a White House ceremony.
“Their powerful silent protest in the 1968 Games was controversial, but it woke folks up and created greater opportunity for those that followed,” Obama said.
For more information:
Fists of Freedom: The Story of the ’68 Summer Games – HBO Documentary
The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment That Changed the World, Dave Zirin, John Wesley Carlos
Race, Culture, and the Revolt of the Black Athlete: The 1968 Olympic Protests and Their Aftermath, Douglas Hartmann
The Revolt of the Black Athlete, Harry Edwards
Not the Triumph but the Struggle: The 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete, Amy Bass
Raise a Fist, Take a Knee: Race and the Illusion of Progress in Modern Sports, John Feinstein
COACH WOODEN and ME, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar