The Legacy of the 1968 Olympics Black Power Salute

Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos made a daring and controversial statement at the 1968 Olympics. Their careers crumbled afterwards, but their legacy lives on.

After making this statement these men became pariahs

Raised fists, heads bowed, with 400 million viewers watching. Tommie Smith and John Carlos took this historic stand at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. A raised fist is a symbol of the civil rights struggle in the U.S. It's also widely known as the Black Power salute. Smith and Carlos, who had won gold and bronze, respectively, agreed to use their medal wins as an opportunity to highlight the social issues roiling the United States at the time.

The gesture as the "The Star-Spangled Banner" played was a political demand in a tense situation. Only a few months had gone by since the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., and the U.S. was marked by race riots that left around 50 people dead. The Cold War was ongoing, and public opinion was divided over the Vietnam War. African Americans like Smith and Carlos were frustrated by what they saw as the passive nature of the Civil Rights movement. They sought out active forms of protests and advocated for racial pride, black nationalism and dramatic action rather than incremental change. After making this statement, Smith and Carlos became pariahs. Banned for life from the Olympics, they lost their jobs and received death threats.

Look in the photo again and you’ll see another man as well: silver medalist Peter Norman, a white Australian runner. Norman didn’t raise his fist that day, but he stood with Smith and Carlos. The winner of the silver medal for the 200 meters at the same event, Australian athlete Peter Norman, also wore a badge supporting the Olympic Project for Human Rights. That cost Norman his career, too. When he died in 2006, Smith and Carlos traveled to Australia to pay him respects at his funeral and be his pallbearers. 50 years later, the statement made by Smith and Carlos remains an example of commitment for generations of athletes.