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Reparation as Fantasy

Statue commemorating Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s Black Power salute at the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games, San Jose State University. Photograph by Albert, cropped. Creative Commons license.

On October 17, 2005, San Jose State University unveiled a twenty-foot fiberglass statue of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, in commemoration of their black-fisted protest at the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games. Eleven years later, on August 1, 2016, SJSU commemorated the event once again. On that day, President Mary Papazian and Athletics Director Gene Bleymaier announced that SJSU would resurrect the intercollegiate men’s track and field program on October 16, 2018, exactly fifty years after Smith and Carlos’s demonstration at the medal ceremony for the 200 meter dash. Their audience, which included San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo and former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta, as well as hundreds of SJSU track and field alumni, learned that the program would compete at Bud Winter Track, a new, five-million dollar facility named after their deceased coach, a USA Track and Field Hall of Fame member. Three decades after cutting track and field for budgetary reasons, SJSU reignited it. In this way, and by symbolic commemoration and monuments, SJSU endeavored to redress the racial oppression faced by Smith and Carlos.[1]

The integration of American sports is often imagined to have advanced race relations in the United States. By allowing for meritocratic, rules-based competition among persons of varying racial backgrounds, Americans have supposedly overcome a long history of racial oppression. This defining achievement has affirmed an exceptionalist notion of America as the land of the free. My research program builds on recent scholarship that challenges this assumptive myth, particularly as it applies to sports and memory. As historians have carefully demonstrated, the commemoration of sports and sports activism serves multiple purposes and produces multiple meanings. Sociologist Douglas Hartmann has charted shifts in public perceptions of Smith and Carlos’s silent protest from the 1980s through their receipt of the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the 2008 ESPYs. He suggests that the appropriation of protest for mass consumption dilutes or subverts original meaning and intention. By extension, the radical impulses of a sporting past can be made impotent.[2]

Smith and Carlos’s now iconic silent protest in Mexico City was rooted in direct critiques of racial inhumanity and marginalization. However, it has become misinterpreted as a post-racial symbol of inclusivity and appropriated as a trendy fad. Monuments and celebrations in honor of Smith and Carlos have not fulfilled their purpose as reparation. Rather, these faux honors have stifled the intent of the black freedom movement and of black athletic revolt more specifically. Remembrance too often waters down the original purpose of demonstrations such as Smith and Carlos’s. It silences the urgency to redress economic, political, and social injustices faced by persons of color.

Smith and Carlos’s protest was more radical and more purposeful than is often remembered. At San Jose State in 1967, Smith and a future Olympic teammate, Lee Evans, who later won gold in the 400 meters, joined former SJSU athletes Harry Edwards and Ken Noel in a campus initiative known as United Black Students for Action (UBSA). The UBSA and its forty members immediately pressured the SJSU administration to address racism in housing, Greek organizations, athletics, and more broadly across campus in the recruitment of black students, faculty, and staff. The UBSA and SJSU held campus-wide forums on each of these concerns in September 1967. UBSA members threatened to disrupt the home-opening football game against the University of Texas El Paso if the university did not work to rectify racial inequality on campus. As a result, President Robert Clark cancelled the football game, drawing the ire of then Governor Ronald Reagan for his decision.[3]

Edwards, a sociology instructor, rallied Smith, Evans, and numerous others to use their celebrity for activism on a national and global stage. On October 7, 1967, the trio met with four other UBSA members—George Washington Ware, Ken Noel, Jimmy Garrett, and Bob Hoover—to discuss boycott strategies learned from the cancelled SJSU football game. Together, these men formed the Olympic Committee for Human Rights (OCHR). Edwards persuaded them that the best way to mobilize black athletes was to invite them to a workshop to discuss an Olympic boycott of the 1968 Mexico City Games. The segment of the OCHR that originally dealt with the proposed boycott was designated the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR). The OPHR articulated five objectives: that the New York Athletic Club (NYAC) desegregate; that the all-white teams from South Africa and Southern Rhodesia be barred from the Olympics; that an additional black coach be added to the Olympic coaching staff; that at least one black staff member, not Jesse Owens, be included on the United States Olympic Commission; and that Muhammad Ali be reinstated as world heavyweight champion.[4]

Collectively, black athletes refused to boycott the Mexico City Olympic Games, but some, including Smith and Carlos, decided to protest injustice on individual terms. For Smith, who participated in ROTC at SJSU, the demonstration was a rallying call for freedom in a nation that treated him “like just another nigger off the track?”[5] His black glove represented the lack of empowerment for black people. His black scarf symbolized black pride and his lack of shoes stood for the poverty and neglect experienced by black communities in a racist nation.

Journalists virulently criticized Smith and Carlos for their demonstration. Brent Musburger, then a sports writer for the Chicago Daily News, wrote, “Smith and Carlos looked like a couple of black skinned storm troopers, holding aloft their black gloved hands during the playing of the National Anthem. It’s destined to go down as the most unsubtle demonstration in the history of protest . . . and it insured maximum embarrassment for the country that picked up their room and board bill in Mexico.” How dare these black athletes rebel?

Forty years later, ESPN honored Smith and Carlos with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at its ESPY award ceremony. How was it that Smith and Carlos, banned by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1968, came to be appreciated by 2008? Had Americans become more tolerant of black athletes? Or does the explanation lie elsewhere? Urla Hill has suggested that “Smith and Carlos have transcended their place as villainous traitors to become a sort of brand for gallantry and pluck in the face of inestimable odds.” In the face of sanction and criticism, Smith, Carlos, and a host of other black athletes in the late 1960s expressed a will for self-determination. In so doing, they tested the limits of American participatory democracy. But since that time, American popular culture has de-radicalized their protest. In ways similar to the cooption of Martin Luther King Jr., Smith and Carlos’s protest has been repackaged and removed from its original context and intentions.

Smith and Carlos’s 2008 ESPY award perhaps encouraged American spectators to reflect on the history of race in the United States. But evidence suggests that most Americans are not yet willing to accept displays of black political self-determination at sporting events, or elsewhere. Roughly 60 percent of Americans disapproved of the interracial 1961 Freedom Rides and the 1963 March on Washington. Eighty-five percent of Americans felt civil rights demonstrations in 1966 hurt advancement of black rights.[6] In 2015, PBS found that 30 percent of white citizens ages 17-34 felt no admiration for black people, believed blacks to be lazy and unintelligent, and believed blacks face little or no discrimination. In 2017, an estimated 72 percent of Americans interpret the silent, kneeling protest of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick as unpatriotic.[7]

By commemorating Smith and Carlos, SJSU attempted to correct past wrongs, but not even that campus was immune to racial violence. In 2014, four white students locked their black roommate Donald Williams Jr. in a room laden with Confederate flags, called him “three-fifths,” wrote the dreaded N-word in his room, wrestled him to the ground, and put a U-shaped lock around his neck. In 2016, Williams’s assailants were found not guilty of a hate crime.[8] That same year SJSU continued its commemoration of Smith and Carlos. Those men deserve recognition for their heroism and patriotism. Much in the spirit of James Baldwin, they sought to improve the nation by critiquing it. But they did not protest for a statue or the renewal of a track program. Rather, their central aim was black freedom and the insurance of citizenship and human rights. SJSU and the nation more broadly would be wise to institute policies that guarantee participatory democracy, equity, and equality for the United States’ black and brown citizens.

Jamal Ratchford is an assistant professor of history and of race, ethnicity, and migration studies at Colorado College. His research explores synergies and discontinuities between sport and long black freedom movements. His particular interest lies in the complicated politics of integration and protest tactics in spaces framed as racially equal. An extended version of this essay will appear as a chapter in his book, Kneeling for Freedom: Selected Essays on the 20th and 21st Century Revolt of the Black Athlete.

[1] Maureen Margaret Smith, “Frozen Fists in Speed City: The Statue as Twenty-First-Century Reparations,” Journal of Sport History 36 (Fall 2009): 393-414.

[2] Smith, “Frozen Fists in Speed City”; Murray G. Phillips, Mark E. O’Neill, and Gary Osmond, “Broadening Horizons in Sport History: Films, Photographs and Monuments,” Journal of Sport History 34 (2007): 284-85; Douglas Hartmann, Race, Culture, and the Revolt of the Black Athlete: The 1968 Olympic Protests and Their Aftermath (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).

[3] Jamal Ratchford, “Black Fists and Fool’s Gold: The 1968 Black Athletic Revolt Reconsidered,” (PhD diss., Purdue University, 2011).

[4] Harry Edwards, The Revolt of the Black Athlete (New York: The Free Press, 1970): 50-51; Frank Murphy, The Last Protest: Lee Evans in Mexico City (Kansas City: Windsprint Press, 2006): 140; Tommie Smith with David Steele, Silent Gesture: The Autobiography of Tommie Smith (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2007): 22, 161-63; Kevin B. Witherspoon, Before the Eyes of the World: Mexico and the 1968 Olympic Games (DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois Press, 2008); Hartmann, Race, Culture, and the Revolt of the Black Athlete; Amy Bass, Not the Triumph but the Struggle: The 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002).

[5] Jamal Ratchford, “The LeBron James Decision and Self-Determination in Post-Racial America,” The Black Scholar 42 (Spring 2012): 49-59.

[6] Elahe Izadi, “Black Lives Matter and America’s long history of resisting civil rights protesters,” Washington Post, April 19, 2016.

[7] Sean McElwee, “The Hidden Racism of Young White Americans,” http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/americas-racism-problem-far-complicated-think/; Matt Vespa, “Poll: 72 Percent See Kaepernick’s National Anthem Antics As ‘Unpatriotic,” Townhall, September 24, 2017.

[8] Jason Song, “White students who bullied black classmate at SJSU escape hate crime convictions,” Los Angeles Times, February 23, 2016.

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