Tommy Smith, John Carlos, medal ceremony men's 200m August 16, 1968
I don't think its possible for anyone who doesn't remember this moment to understand how shocking it was. There was outrage around the world. I can remember, as a 9 year-old, thinking this was a violation. The Olympics were above politics. In a world being torn apart by war and chaos (as it was in 1968), the Olympics was one of the very few institutions that held any hope. 40 years later, I think the Olympics are a racket, and that these men were very brave. The image is no longer scandalous, but heroic.
I'm not surprised to learn now that the two men suffered for their gesture. Even Australian Peter Norman, the silver medalist, was punished for his support. Americans were incensed that these men, sent to represent the best of America, used the occasion to protest. Many felt betrayed. Besides, anger, there was fear. American society had agreed that blacks should have rights, but power was another matter. Carlos and Smith were saying "I do not accept definitions, I will define myself." To a lot of Americans, that sounded like a threat. But in a way, the gesture was aimed not at whites, but at blacks. Don't simply accept the rights you are given, take the freedom you deserve. Carlos and Smith were also announcing that the death of Martin Luther King was not the end of the civil rights movement. To quote Churchill, it was just the end of the beginning. And they were right. In the 1970's Black culture blew out of its niches to become mainstream American culture. Blacks entered swathes of American life on their own terms.
As for the Olympics, how naive we were. This was the first crack in the Olympic facade. We only found out later about the student massacre that proceeded the Olympics. 1972 brought the Munich hostage crisis, and politics was in the Olympics for good. 1976 was staggeringly corrupt. Then came the boycotts of 1980 and 1984. By the time the Bejing Games were announced, it was clear to everyone that the lily-white best-hope of humanity was a commercial racket, and the IOC racketeers. How could one explain such a deal with the devil? Money. The games, the sponsorships and the spectacle are designed to make money for the IOC, the broadcast networks, the games corporate sponsors and those few athletes who succeed in spinning their performances into business opportunities.
After 40 years, this image seems less to me a political statement, as an announcement. Things are going to change. And that change will come on our terms. They were right. Fortunately, they lived long enough to be widely recognized as heroes. There are statues, schools named after them, awards, speaking tours and best sellers. Who says there's no second acts in American life?