A Look Back at the 1968 Mexico Olympics and the Fist Seen ‘Round the World

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Ever feel like the world’s all topsy-turvy? Well, it kind of is. From Ukraine to Ferguson to Mexico City, Syria and Hong Kong, it seems things have changed quite a bit from the days of Washington Consensus prosperity, when NAFTA was still going to save the world and the biggest political controversy involved a White House intern and a saxophone-blowing president. Yes, it’s easy to grow disenchanted with everything seemingly going down the drain around us, so for this week’s Throwback Thursday we hark back to another time when the world was seemingly out of whack, but hope was more alive than ever as everyone from artists to intellectuals to athletes put their careers on the line to affect positive change.

That time, of course, was 1968: a year characterized by a massacre in Mexico City accompanied by massive student demonstrations, civil rights mobilization across the United States, a foreign war spiraling very quickly out of control for the U.S. government, bloody post-colonial strife across the Arab world, marches in Europe and Asia… sound familiar? And in the midst of all this upheaval there was one simple gesture that resonated throughout history: the infamous Black Power Salute at the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games. And wouldn’t you know that one of the most emblematic figures in the 20th century struggle for civil rights, the man who risked his entire Olympic career to stand up for what he knew was right in the face of the entire world, was of Cuban descent?

John Wesley Carlos was born in Harlem, New York in 1945 to an African American father and a mother who grew up in Cuba. After excelling in both academics and track and field, Carlos began studies at East Texas University on an athletic scholarship before transferring to San Jose State University, where he trained under future Hall of Fame coach Lloyd Winter. But while Carlos went about dismantling world records, he also became heavily involved in activism, founding the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) and calling on a boycott of the Mexico City Olympics unless certain conditions were met, including the withdrawal of South Africa from the Games and the restoration of Muhammad Ali’s title. When the boycott wasn’t entirely successful, bronze Medal winner Carlos — along with gold medalist Tommie Smith — decided to take their politics to the podium and walked onto the track in black socks before raising their black-gloved fists to the air in a gesture that scandalized the world.

John Carlos’ Cuban roots has received little to no attention by the historical record, but the international significance of his gesture is further testament to the deep impact Afro-Latinos have had on the struggle for civil rights in this country and broader American history in general. And while 1968 has come and gone, Carlos continues to be a model of courage and social engagement for the cultural icons that shape our day-to-day realities, and echoes of his commitment can still be heard today in the mobilization of actors, musicians, artists and athletes around the 43 disappeared students of Iguala, Mexico.

Here are a couple of films that explore the significance of the Black Power Salute in the United States and beyond.

1968 Summer Olympics, Black Power Salute

In this brief clip, sportswriter David Zirin compares Smith and Carlos’ act of courage to the highly sanitized, corporate world of contemporary sports, in which Michael Jordan takes the podium to protect an endorsement deal rather than risking his entire career for the betterment of the world.

Black Power Salute
Director: Geoff Small
Country: Great Britain
Year: 2008

This straightforward BBC doc allows both Smith and Carlos to reflect on what inspired them to raise their fists that fateful day and discuss the aftermath of a gesture that caused them to be banned from the Olympics for life.

Director: Matt Norman
Country: Australia
Year: 2008

While Carlos and Smith were without a doubt the most visible figures involved in the infamous gesture, there was another man standing on the podium that day: Australian silver medalist Peter Norman, who quietly flashed a pin in support of the Olympic Project for Human Rights co-founded by Carlos. This film explores the activist legacy of Norman and the significance of his understated gesture.