Olympic protest touched a generation | Bob Roegner

Tommie Smith, center, and John Carlos, right, deliver their famous salute at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico. On the left is Australian silver medalist Peter Norman. - PUBLIC DOMAIN
Tommie Smith, center, and John Carlos, right, deliver their famous salute at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico. On the left is Australian silver medalist Peter Norman.
— image credit: PUBLIC DOMAIN

It was 43 years ago, and yet the iconic image of Tommie Smith and John Carlos standing on the Olympic podium in Mexico City is still seared into our collective consciousness as if it were yesterday.

With the national anthem playing in the background, their heads bowed in silent protest, their gold and bronze medals from the 200-meter dash reflecting the flash bulbs capturing for eternity their raised black gloved fists and their powerful message.

As we grow to adulthood, we each have a period in time that leaves its vivid imprint on our acknowledgment that the world may be a very different place to some than it is to us. The colorful and frivolous hues of childhood are replaced by darker clouds of maturity in our recognition that the world is changing around us in ways we don’t understand.

Such was 1968 for me and many of my generation.

I grew up in Tacoma, somewhat sheltered from national events. But 1968 found me in Port Angeles attending Peninsula Community College.

It was a year of change, challenge and pain. We would lose both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy to an assassin’s bullet. The Democratic convention in Chicago would turn ugly and display our political disagreement on the direction of the country at its worst to a watching world. Vietnam frightened us as we all knew someone who had been drafted, but wasn’t coming home.

The non-violent student protests in Mexico City over poverty ended with a massacre in Tlatelolco Square, which suggested that to some disagreement wasn’t tolerated, and democracy was just a word. Life seemed suddenly fragile.

I had run track and had followed the careers of both Smith and Carlos. They were the Usain Bolt of their era. They were held in awe for the majestic manner in which they easily dispatched men of lesser talent.

Like others, I had watched untouched and confused as the the civil rights movement unfolded thousands of miles away. I had no understanding of segregation, or separate schools. Or of lavatories or swimming pools or lunch counters determined by color.

Those few minutes that Smith and Carlos quietly held the world stage awoke in me a curiosity to an outside world I didn’t know. I wondered why they felt it necessary to lodge their protest and to choose this manner and this venue. I wondered what the silver medal winner, Peter Norman, who is white and from Australia, thought as he stood between the men. I wondered what would happen next?

Both men were exiled from the Olympic village and vilified by many throughout the country. The next few years weren’t easy for either man. They lived with death threats. Jobs were hard to find, and Carlos’s first wife committed suicide because of the stress.

Recently, John Carlos was a guest speaker at Highline Community College. Now he is Dr. John Carlos, and is a counselor at a Palm Springs High School. He is older and grayer, but he hasn’t lost his sense of right or wrong.

His manner isn’t defiant, but humble, thoughtful and deliberate. He is a proud man whose act brought more focus to our national debate about equality. It represents the underlying principles he believes mark the quality of a human being.

Smith and Carlos didn’t raise their fists for black power, as many thought. They raised them for human rights. Not for theirs, but for everyone’s. Peter Norman joined them that fateful day in wearing a button that said “Olympic Project for Human Rights.” Norman faced many of the same difficulties upon his return to Australia.

Carlos’s actions brought a face and a focus to the civil rights debate that might never have been achieved had he simply accepted his medal — along with the fame that awaited when he returned to the world of track. He made a choice, a cause over self. In an instant, his life was changed forever and brought pain instead of riches, to himself and those he loved. Pain, that in lesser beings might have broken them.

Would he do it again?

Justice and equality aren’t just words to John Carlos. He is still carrying that cause daily as he seeks to broaden our understanding and appreciation of each other. Be it as a high school counselor focused on success for youth, giving a speech or writing a book. Yes, he would do it again.

Most of us would be happy with a life that made a small difference in our children’s world. Carlos helped change how an entire generation thinks.

“We live to make history,” Carlos writes. A fitting tribute to a man who did, and we are better for it.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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