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Black Power Salute
Shown on BBC TV
Reviewed by Dave Gorton
The year 1968 was a momentous year for struggle. The monumental general strike in France and huge movements of students and workers in Italy and Germany; the uprising in Czechoslovakia against Stalinist rule; the launching of the Tet offensive against American imperialism by the North Vietnamese and the heightening of the anti-war movement in the US.
1968 also saw the assassination of Martin Luther King and a continuation of the struggles of African-Americans for justice in their home land.
The world political situation was likely to pass me, an eight-year old, by. Except that we all had to make an Olympic Games scrapbook at school - and the infamous images that were beamed across the world found their way into mine.
The image that went down in history was that of the black American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the medal rostrum, one black-gloved fist of each raised in what became known as the Black Power salute.
In fact, their stance was something of a climbdown; the original intention of the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) was a boycott of the games completely.
The OPHR had been formed by Harry Edwards at the San José State University. San Joséhad become the focal point of black protest against limited opportunities in education and in society in general. Smith, Carlos and Lee Evans, who won the 400 metres in Mexico, were all students at San José, radicalised by their experiences and each other.
Ironically, the eventual protest probably succeeded in highlighting the issue of black American poverty and racism more than any boycott would have done at the time.
When Smith and Carlos went to collect their medals, they wore black socks and no shoes, denoting black poverty, they wore beads, to commemorate those lynched, and of course black gloves.
The silver medal winner, Peter Norman, a (white) Australian, wanting to add his support for the protest, grabbed an OPHR badge from one of the (white) American sailing team. Norman was reprimanded by the Australian Olympic authorities who refused to select him four years later. When Norman died in 2006, Smith and Carlos were two of the pallbearers at his funeral.
Smith and Carlos were heroes amongst America's black population but faced death threats and physical violence. Both had to struggle to make ends meet. Carlos, just a few years after winning Olympic bronze, was chopping his furniture up to make firewood to keep warm. His wife, with financial pressures adding to her despair, committed suicide in 1977.
In fact, it wasn't until the run-up to the 1984 Olympic Games in the US that both were rehabilitated in some form.
As Tommie Smith said on the night of the protest: "If I win, I am American, not a black American. But if I did something bad, then they would say I am a Negro. We are black and we are proud of being black. Black America will understand what we did tonight."
In The Socialist 22 October 2008:
Ford workers strike
Socialist Party editorial
Socialist Party campaigns
Socialist Party workplace news
International socialist news and analysis
Socialist Party review