The Mexico City Olympics protest and the media
Comparing coverage of Smith and Carlos in 1968 to Kaepernick today shows what’s changed — and what hasn’t
The black power salute by American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos on a Mexico City medal stand at the 1968 Summer Olympics is one of the most iconic images in the history of sports activism. Even though the majority of Americans alive today weren’t born yet, it’s a part of our collective consciousness. We remember it, even if we didn’t experience it.
But with many people comparing the media coverage and public perception of Colin Kaepernick to the precedent set by Smith and Carlos, it’s important to ask how things really went down that night 50 years ago and how it was covered by the American media at the time.
The answers are different from what one might believe.
First of all, it didn’t take place in the summer at all, but on Oct. 16. The Mexico City Games had begun four days earlier, an autumn concession to the Mexican heat and the American viewing public, which was preoccupied with the World Series until Oct. 10, when the Detroit Tigers beat the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 7.
The 200-meter final easily could have taken place without either of the famous protagonists. In the semifinals, ABC television cameras captured Carlos, who won his heat, stepping on the line separating his lane from the next, an automatic disqualification that the judges simply missed. Smith, meanwhile, strained a groin muscle during his semifinal, yet still went on to win gold in a world-record time of 19.83 seconds (besting his own mark of 20.0 set two years earlier).
It wasn’t until the day after the 200-meter final, during an ABC Evening News broadcast hosted by first-year anchor Frank Reynolds, that many American television viewers saw the protest by Smith and Carlos. Reynolds, a World War II veteran and Purple Heart recipient, covered the story in an empathetic fashion, giving no airtime to critics of the gesture, a significant difference from coverage of today’s NFL protests.
In the immediate aftermath, Americans weren’t confronted with the image of Smith and Carlos wherever they turned. The photo didn’t appear at all in the succeeding issues of Sports Illustrated, let alone on the cover, and Newsweek buried it on Page 78. Many newspapers carried the photo, but often as a small sidebar next to images of the victorious Smith crossing the 200-meter finish line in record-breaking time. At the time, many considered Smith’s athletic feat the bigger story. Now we struggle to remember whether it was Smith or Carlos who won the gold medal, and mistakenly believe the other won silver, not bronze.
On its Oct. 17 newscast, ABC, the Olympics’ rights holder, started with coverage of Jackie Kennedy’s wedding to Aristotle Onassis, an update on casualties in Vietnam and reports from the presidential campaign trail. (In El Paso, Texas, Alabama Gov. George Wallace trolled hecklers by claiming there were two four-letter words they did not know: w-o-r-k and s-o-a-p.) Midway through the show, Reynolds broke the news out of Mexico City in understated fashion.
“The United States leads the Olympics in medal awards and is just about supreme in the sprint races thanks to men like Tommie Smith and John Carlos,” he said. “Yesterday, they came in first and third in the 200-meter dash and then stood on the victory platform with bowed heads, wearing black socks and gloves in a racial protest.”
The screen then cut to footage from the previous night’s medal ceremony, not just a brief clip but the entire “Star-Spangled Banner.” Gold medalist Smith stood center-screen, head bowed and right arm straight up in the air. Carlos appeared to the right, his left arm up and slightly bent, with silver medalist Peter Norman of Australia to the left, staring straight ahead. Between close-ups of Smith and a wide shot of Carlos, the camera followed the American flags as they were hoisted into the night sky.
Reynolds came back on screen to provide context. “Before the Olympics there was a furor in this country over a threatened boycott by Negro athletes,” he said. “Then most of them decided that participation in this Olympics would further the cause of civil rights in this country and abroad. The Negro athletes wear buttons reading ‘Olympic Project for Human Rights.’ (Norman did, too, but Reynolds made no mention of this.) There were some boos in the stadium last night. ABC sports editor Howard Cosell spoke to Tommie Smith after he accepted his gold medal.”
The 50-year-old Cosell was shown seated next to Smith in a studio with legs crossed and arms resting comfortably by his side. Cosell asked a simple question that gave Smith a platform to say whatever he wanted.
“Tommie,” he asked, “would you explain to the people of America exactly what you did and why you did it?”
“First of all, Howard, I would like to say I’m very happy to have won the gold medal here in Mexico City,” Smith said. “The right glove that I wore on my right hand signified the power in black America. The left glove my teammate John Carlos wore on his left hand made an arc, my right hand to his left hand, also signifying black unity. The scarf that was worn around my neck signified blackness. John Carlos and me wore socks, black socks, without shoes, to also signify our poverty.”
Just as Kaepernick’s protests came during a time of heightened racial tensions, the rationale Smith outlined for Cosell fit squarely into the context of contemporary events in the U.S. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated just six months earlier in the midst of organizing his Poor People’s Campaign. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, running for president on a platform focused on racial equality and economic justice, had been shot and killed five months earlier. Segregationist presidential candidate Wallace was on the way to winning five Southern states. Sports Illustrated had devoted the month of July to examining the plight of the black athlete.
Cosell’s second and final question — “Do you think you represented all black athletes in doing this?” — would likely draw criticism today. So many land mines: Are white athletes asked if their political statements represent all white people? Was Cosell playing to white audiences who differentiated between “good” blacks and militant ones? Was he goading Smith into creating a divide among black athletes in Mexico City who didn’t want to be pulled into the controversy? Smith looked uncomfortable as he answered, leaning away from Cosell, crossing his arms in front of him. In his response, he elevated the discussion beyond the track or the Olympic Village and explained that the gesture sprung from deep within. It was at once universal and intensely personal.
“Ah, I can say I represented black America,” he said. “I’m very proud to be a black man as I said earlier, and also to have won the gold medal. And this, I thought, I could represent my people by letting them know that I’m proud to be a black man.”
The segment lasted 3 minutes and 40 seconds, an eternity for a national news broadcast. All ABC had done was show what happened and ask Smith to talk about it. No talking heads, no hot takes, no contrived debate.
The next night, after the U.S. Olympic Committee had evicted Smith and Carlos from the Olympic Village and ordered them to leave within 48 hours, CBS and NBC finally picked up on the story, but only with brief reports, read by Walter Cronkite and Chet Huntley, respectively, on the athletes being sent home. ABC’s newscast, however, returned to the story for nearly five minutes, looking for reactions in the village. Jesse Owens, a four-time gold medalist in track and field, declined to comment, as did sprinter Lee Evans and Carlos’ wife, Kim. U.S. boxing coach Patrick Albert was frustrated by the attention. “There is no movement, there is no nothing,” he said. “We abide by the rules. And I wish everybody would go home.” American middleweight boxer Al Jones skirted the subject through humor. Asked how he would accept a medal should he win one, he deadpanned, “Over my neck, you know.” (He won bronze.)
When a scrum of reporters found Carlos at the athletes village, ABC viewers could hear the agitation in his voice. Where Smith had appeared calm and welcomed the chance to explain his actions in the televised interview the night before, Carlos projected a different attitude. “Next man who come up and puts a camera in my face or a speaker up in my face, I’m going to knock them down and jump on them, you hear? Believe me, I’m telling you. If you know what’s good, go out and talk to one of the coaches and just leave me alone, all right?” (At the previous night’s news conference after the medal presentation, Carlos had struck an equally forceful tone. “I’d like to tell white people in America and all over the world that if they don’t care for the things black people do, then they shouldn’t sit in the stands and watch them perform.”)
Reynolds then turned the newscast over to Cosell in Mexico City for his “comments on the controversy,” signaling to viewers they were about to hear an opinion, not straight reporting. Standing behind a podium in his familiar ABC Sports sports coat, holding a pair of glasses in his right hand and with a wide view of the Olympic track visible behind him, Cosell blasted Olympic officials and expressed sympathy for activist black athletes.
“Doubtless the preponderant weight of American public opinion will support the committee, but nothing is solved, really. The U.S. Olympic Committee, in the manner of the famed village of Brigadoon, appears on the scene once every four years. It is in the main a group of pompous, arrogant, medieval-minded men who regard the games as a private social preserve for their tiny clique. They view participation in the games as a privilege, not as a right earned by competition. They say the games are sports, not politics, something separate and apart from the realities of life. The black athlete says he is leading a revolution in America, a revolution designed to produce dignity for the black man and that he is a human being before he is an athlete. He says his life in America is filled with injustice, that he wants equality everywhere, not just within the arena. He says he will not be used once every four years on behalf of a group that ignores what happens to him every day of all the years. He says he earns participation, wins fairly, and that he will use his prominence earned within the arena to better his plight outside of it. He says don’t tell me about the rules, the U.S. doesn’t dip its flag in front of the reviewing stand and that’s a rule all other nations follow. He is aware of backlash but says he’s had it for 400 years. And, so, the Olympic Games for the United States have become a kind of America in microcosm, a country torn apart. Where will it all end? Don’t ask the U.S. Olympic Committee, they’ve been too busy preparing for a VIP cocktail party next Monday night in the lush new Camino Real. Howard Cosell reporting from Mexico City.”
Cosell had predicted a backlash, and he was right. But there was also support. And in contrast to today, where Twitter would be ablaze with commentary before the rockets’ red glare, in the age of weekly newsmagazines and days-later letters to the editor, reaction to Smith and Carlos “unrolled really slowly,” said College of New Rochelle professor Amy Bass, author of Not the Triumph but the Struggle: The 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete, a book about black athletes and activism. “It’s hard for our modern brains to wrap around. It wasn’t an instant shock, which is what we assume it was.” Further, Bass says, much of the American press covered the 200-meter race and the medal stand gesture as separate events, often with one story and photo on Smith’s record-breaking athletic performance and another package on the raised fists. The Los Angeles Times treated the protest as the bigger story; The New York Times did the opposite.
At the Olympic Village, white American pole vaulter Bob Seagren told reporters that “if [Smith and Carlos] don’t like the United States, they can always leave.” But white decathlete Tom Waddell said black Americans had been discredited by the American flag more often than they had sullied it. “Let a Russian try that and see what happens,” hammer thrower Hal Connolly said in support of the political protest.
In contrast to the support from many Olympians, the reaction from white sportswriters at major news outlets was mostly negative. Time magazine complained that Smith and Carlos had transformed the Olympic motto of Faster, Higher, Stronger into Angrier, Nastier, Uglier. In the Los Angeles Times, John Hall wrote that he was sick of apologizing for the likes of Smith and Carlos, who he said had a “whining, mealy-mouthed, shallow view of the world.” Others were less harsh. In the Los Angeles Times, Hall’s colleague Jim Murray cracked, “Our secret is out. We got race problems in our country.” In Newsweek, Pete Axthelm wrote that “judged against some of the alternatives that black militants had considered, the silent tableau seemed fairly mild.”
Many national publications provided space to readers with varying opinions. In Newsweek, a reader from Redondo Beach, California, wrote that Smith and Carlos should “seek residence elsewhere. Being of African descent does not license an American to act like an ass, either abroad or at home.” But a letter-writer from Austin, Texas, asked, “Did we expect black athletes to bring just their talents and not themselves to the Olympics? The black protest was fitting because it pointed up the fact that Negroes were asked to represent a nation that does not yet fully represent them. To expect any man to live in a vacuum (Olympic or otherwise) is as naïve as it is unfair.”
Just as there has not been a monolithic reaction to Kaepernick’s actions among black Americans today, the black press was divided in 1968. At the Baltimore Afro-American, 64-year-old sports editor Sam Lacy, who had been instrumental in pushing Major League Baseball to integrate two decades earlier, said he was embarrassed by the Nazi “heil-like salute,” which he found to be “childish and in extremely poor taste.” (Comparisons to the Hitler salutes in Berlin 32 years earlier were frequent. The Los Angeles Times also called the raised fists a “Nazi-like salute,” and in the Chicago American, young reporter Brent Musburger dubbed Smith and Carlos “black-skinned stormtroopers.”) The Pittsburgh Courier, on the other hand, ran a front-page photo of the medal stand scene with the caption “BLACK AND PROUD.”
In some cases, opinions were split even at the same black newspapers.
Los Angeles Sentinel reporter Booker Griffin called the protest “one of the greatest moments for the Afro-American in the 400 years of colonialization in this country,” while his colleague Brad Pye Jr. wrote that it was out of place at a sporting event. “All countries and all people have a multitude of problems,” he said. “The Olympic Games is not a problem-solving platform.”
But an Oct. 24 CBS Evening News segment showed just how positively Smith and Carlos’ gesture was received by many younger blacks. After being kicked out of Mexico by white Olympic officials and fielding questions from a white press corps, Carlos was comforted by the support he received from the black community on his return home. Flanked by Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown at an outdoor news conference in Washington, D.C., and surrounded by 2,000 cheering Howard University students, Carlos felt and heard the love.
“From this day forward,” Carmichael proclaimed, “black people will pick their own black heroes.”
Carlos told the crowd how much their support meant to him.
“There are so many white people telling me that I was a fool,” he said, “and I was standing up on that platform, that Tommie Smith and I were standing there alone, and I was very honored and pleased to come home to the black community and find that everyone was there with us.”
Fifty years later, Kaepernick has emerged as the successor to Smith and Carlos, both in his visual, national anthem-staged protest of racism (though there is no single, iconic image associated with him) and in the range of public and media responses to his actions. Now as then, nearly all of the traditional sports media members who have interpreted Kaepernick’s actions for the American public are white, even though the non-Hispanic white population in the U.S. dropped from 84 percent to 64 percent between the 1970 and 2010 censuses. But thanks to Twitter, blogs and other forms of social media, says Lou Moore, a professor of African-American history and sports history at Grand Valley State University, more voices, especially black voices, are being heard this time around. Still, he says, in the cases of both Smith and Carlos, and Kaepernick, critics have taken the easy way out when they harp on style and ignore substance. “It’s very similar in the sense many people are blatantly and willingly missing the point,” said Moore. “When people go straight to, ‘They’re being disrespectful,’ they’re willingly ignoring what [Smith, Carlos and Kaepernick] were actually talking about. All the naysayers want to do is talk about the flag or the anthem because they don’t want to be having these real conversations about racism.”
A May 2018 study by San Jose State graduate student Jack Hunter echoes Moore’s point. Analyzing media coverage of protests by Kaepernick and other NFL players between August 2016 and February 2018, Hunter found that coverage of the underlying reason for the protests (police brutality) has been overshadowed by coverage of opposition to the protests — and protesters.
A lot has changed since those days in Mexico City. Back then, one could walk on a plane without going through security and then light up a cigarette on board. No woman had ever served on the Supreme Court, seat belts weren’t mandatory and man had yet to walk on the moon.
But when it comes to American attitudes toward politically active black athletes, Bass says we’re still where we were on Oct. 16, 1968.
“Literally nothing has changed,” she said. “It’s the exact same story.”