Carlos and Smith and the Mexico City Olympics 50 years on – the struggle continues


Jorid Hovden
Department of Sociology and Political Science
Norwegian University of Science and Technology

Harry Edwards
The Revolt of the Black Athlete: 50th Anniversary Edition
186 pages, hardcover, ill.
Urbana and Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press 2017 (Sport and Society)
ISBN 978-0-252-04107-5

Those of us old enough will always remember John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s black power salute at the victory ceremony for the 200-meter dash in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Their salute was against racism and economic injustice of black athletes and for black liberation and civil rights for black Americans. This black power salute contributed to my first awakening on how sport organizations exert discrimination, oppression and injustices to black athletes as well as other minority groups, and how collective voices and unified action of athletes can evoke institutional changes both in and outside sports.

Harry Edwards was the founder and architect behind the raised fists on the 1968 Olympic podium. The Revolt of the Black Athlete published in 2017, is a rewritten version of his book, published in 1969. The 50thanniversary edition features a new dedication, introduction and afterword, which engages with the struggles of a present still rife of racism in American sports and shows how the words written five decades ago are still timely and relevant.

Today, Harry Edwards is a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. He was the founder of the San Jose University Institute for the Study of Sport in Society and Social Change, where he was a scholar activist in the 1968 Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR). The establishment of this project and the story of the sport-based civil-rights movement are well described in this book. Simultaneously, Edwards accounts also entails analyses that places African-American athletes in their community, visualizing the blatant oppression of the black population and how young black athletes faced disadvantages, which reminded them that they have made it to higher education, but there was nothing egalitarian about the conditions they lived in or the opportunities they were offered.

The first edition (1969) has often been called a classic of activist scholarship, because it provided the first analysis of the activism and rebellion by black athletes in the US. The analysis illustrates how the athletes’ collective voices and unified actions are able to change institutional and incorrected injustices in society through sport. In other words, the starting point for Edwards’s excellent analyses is that (black) athletes have the same obligation to visualize oppression, injustice and fight for change as other (black) citizens (e.g., p. xxx).

The totality of our effort was the regaining of black dignity…

The 50th anniversary edition consists of 186 pages and 8 chapters, including the new introduction chapter and afterword. About 50 pages of the book is appendices, including information of the Olympic Project for Human Rights and the 1968 National Black Power Conference Statement, as well as other relevant documents referred to in the previous chapters. The two first chapters are setting the context and the understanding of how the 1968 Mexico City Olympic revolt happened. Chapter one serves as a concise historical review and provides vivid details of the historical abuses suffered by black athletes. In chapter two, strong arguments are put forwards for why media historically have not covered racial justice issues in sport. The following three chapters describe a rich history of the Olympic project for Human rights (OPHR) and outline in details the rationale for the revolts of black athletes (supported by the original reprinted documents in the appendices). In all chapters Edwards details the actions and meetings by himself and others, He refers to the planning and organizing of the protests, gives insight into the movement building and not least, outlines the significance of profile and good contacts, including the support provided by some of the highest-profile leaders of the civil rights movement. Below I will give a few specific comments to Edwards’ new introduction and afterword as well as to chapter 5, “Mexico City, 1968”, which I found especially interesting due to my own memories and experiences of Smith and Carlos demonstration in 1968.

“Mexico City in 1968” outlines the movement that led to the Black Power demonstration at the Olympic in 1968. I had very limited previous insight into this story, so this chapter was really a remedy to close this knowledge gap. The analyses details, for example, how the main plan for boycott was changed in the process because many of the athletes changed their mind regarding this issue. It was therefore

decided that each athlete would determine and carry out his own ‘thing’, preferably focusing around the victory stand ceremonies… The result of this new strategy, devised for the most part by the athletes themselves, were no less than revolutionary in impact” (p. 84-85).

In the book, Tommie Smith, by explaining of the protest gestures used, shows for example how well thought through their protest was:

I wore a black right hand glove and Carlos wore left hand glove of the same pair. My raised right hand stood for the power in black America. Carlos’ raised left hand stood for the unity of black America and together they formed an arch of unity and power. The black scarf around my neck stood for black pride. The black socks with no shoes stood for black poverty in racist America. The totality of our effort was the regaining of black dignity… The bowed head was the remembrance of the fallen warriors in the black liberation struggle in America… (p. 86).

Edwards’ analysis indicates how this detailed planned protest had some immediately effective impacts, how the US Olympic Committee was acting hastily and rashly and threatened all other US athletes with severe penalties if other protests should follow. Smith and Carlos were given 48 hours to get out of Mexico and were suspended from the Olympic team. Thousands of telegrams from all over the world flowed into the homes and the Olympic quarters of Carlos and Smith, supporting their actions and condemning the US Olympic officials and the IOC. The world acknowledged the protests and Smith, Carlos and others were heroes to black Americans. Based on such impacts, Edwards ends his analyses with a call to black athletes for “determination, sacrifice and courage to do whatever is necessary to remove oppression from our backs” (p. 97).

In this way, the book remains highly relevant to the current climate of athletic activism and stands out as an important piece of sport history as well as a road map for critical discussions of sport.

Edwards’ main objective of the new introduction is to provide additional information to the original text. Among the most interesting is his outlining of “imperatives of organizing a successful social movement” (p. xiv). His prescription emphasizes for example the importance of a focus on group injustice or groups bound by common oppression (e.g. race, sexual orientation, gender). Further, he points to the importance of being able to accept and collaborate with people doing things differently than he would, as long as the activities are based on the same goals (p. xv). The latter also relates to the varying methods of today’s NFL protests, such as taking the knee, raising a fist, locking arms. When Edwards talks about the current situation in US sport, we would expect expressions of frustration and disheartenment, since we recognize many of the same issues and challenges for black athletes and black people as for 50 years ago. Edwards reminds us that “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it” (p. xi), and he explains several reasons why Americans have not learned from the country’s injustices and racism, such as fear and demagoguery. On the other hand, he argues that it is not possible for history to repeat itself. In the afterword, he compares the revolts by athletes in the 1960s, to the athlete movements of the 21stcentury. He notes that one of the major differences is ‘social media’, which he characterizes as: “the greatest tool of protest organization in history” (p. 165).

For me the strengths of this book are also its weaknesses. For a non-US citizen, the analysis contains too many details and abbreviations and especially details of documentation linked to a myriad of American institutions and regulations. This compact writing style disturbed my reading and, in some respects, blurred the narrator line. In a 50th anniversary edition, I also would have expected more newly written and rewritten texts. However, with that said, I will characterize Edwards as a sharp writer with a sharp political mind. There is little doubt that the book brings considerable insight into the story of the sport-based civil rights movement and enables building bridges from the Olympic Project of Human Rights and the black revolts in the 60s to the struggles of the present, to the boycotts and dramatic politicization of athletes by Black Lives Matter. In this way, the book remains highly relevant to the current climate of athletic activism and stands out as an important piece of sport history as well as a road map for critical discussions of sport.

The book can be seen as a kind of firsthand look on how sporting institutions act politically, how they in most cases act as political tools to reproduce and strengthen racism and class-based injustice, but also how they can be used as tools for social justice movements struggling for black liberation and in promoting social change. These dual realities is present throughout the book and it is therefore impossible, after reading The revolt of the black athlete, still to argue for sporting institutions as unpolitical or politically neutral.

Copyright © Jorid Hovden 2018

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