By Lenny Moon
Reflecting on the highly charged 1968 Olympic Games during the turbulent 60s, one could only anticipate that at some point during this exhibition of the world’s greatest athletes on this global stage, fireworks were inevitable. These games were staged in the midst of a decade that witnessed the assassinations of Dr Martin L King, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers and both Kennedy brothers John and Robert. Major US cities such as Detroit, Los Angeles, Chicago and others were burning as a result of the aforementioned murders as well as police brutality, social injustice and other fundamental issues that are prevalent even 50 plus years later. Added to this toxic climate, the unpopular Viet Nam War was being met with strong resistance on a national scale adding to the tension.
There was serious discussion that the Black athletes that qualified to compete in the Olympic Games would not participate. Lew Alcindor (aka Kareem Jabbar) the top amateur roundballer in the country, if not the world, opted not to make the trip. This of course predated the NBA stars assuming the reins of Olympic dominance in the Games. Alcindor’s withdrawal created a tremendous void while making a resounding statement in the process. The climate also included the recent signings of the Civil Rights Act (1964), the Voting Rights Act (1965) and the Fair Housing Act (1968) the result of years of successful protesting.
Enter Tommy Smith and John Carlos, two of the USA premier sprinters. Although they are on record as realizing the career risk involved prior to their decision, they steadfastly moved forward with the historic demonstration. Although representing the USA royally by adding to their country’s medal total, they were banned from the Games and ostracized from being gainfully employed upon their return home. The courage and commitment by Smith and Carlos symbolized the athletes of that era that were willing to sacrifice for a mission that was larger than any personal gain.