Photo: Gold Medallist Tommie Smith, (center) and Bronze medallist John Carlos (right) showing the raised fist on the podium after the 200m in the 1968 Summer Olympics wearing Olympic Project for Human Rights badges. The third athlete is silver medallist Peter Norman from Australia.
It’s an image that’s widely reproduced, and most of us were told that it depicts a “black power salute” in the 1968 Olympics. But there’s much more to the story. Smith and Carlos were advocating for the Olympic Project for Human Rights (Norman, at left, also wears the badge for the project).
"OPHR had four central demands: restore Muhammad Ali’s heavyweight boxing title, remove Avery Brundage as head of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), hire more African American coaches, and disinvite South Africa and Rhodesia from the Olympics. Ali’s belt had been taken by boxing’s powers that be earlier in the year for his resistance to the Vietnam draft. By standing with Ali, OPHR was expressing its opposition to the war. By calling for the hiring of more African American coaches as well as the ouster of Brundage, they were dragging out of the shadows a part of Olympic history those in power wanted to bury. Brundage was an anti-Semite and a white supremacist, best remembered today for sealing the deal on Hitler’s hosting the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. By demanding the exclusion of South Africa and Rhodesia, they aimed to convey their internationalism and solidarity with the black freedom struggles against apartheid in Africa." (link)
Smith and Carlos were vilified in the American mainstream media. The mildest and commonest accusation was that they “politicized” the Olympics. In reality, the Olympics were already political; like any institution of that scale, they were inextricably bound with issues and entanglements that had very real repercussions.