Fists of Freedom: An Olympic Story Not Taught in Schools

The latest “If We Knew Our History” column from the Zinn Education Project is by Dave Zirin. In the article, Zirin tells the story behind the famous photo of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. The ongoing “If We Knew Our History” columns show why it is so important for teachers to “teach outside the textbook”–to bring a people’s history to our students. The Zinn Education Project is a collaboration between Rethinking Schools and Teaching for Change.

Fists of Freedom: An Olympic Story Not Taught in Schools

by Dave Zirin, Sportswriter

This iconic photo appears in many U.S. history textbooks, stripped of the story of the planned boycott and demands, creating the appearance of a solitary act of defiance.

It’s been almost 44 years since Tommie Smith and John Carlos took the medal stand following the 200-meter dash at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City and created what must be considered the most enduring, riveting image in the history of either sports or protest. But while the image has stood the test of time, the struggle that led to that moment has been cast aside.

When mentioned at all in U.S. history textbooks, the famous photo appears with almost no context. For example, Pearson/Prentice Hall’sUnited States History places the photo opposite a short three-paragraph section, “Young Leaders Call for Black Power.” The photo’s caption says simply that “…U.S. athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised gloved fists in protest against discrimination.”

The media—and school curricula—fail to address the context that produced Smith and Carlos’ famous gesture of resistance: It was the product of what was called “The Revolt of the Black Athlete.” Amateur black athletes formed OPHR, the Olympic Project for Human Rights, to organize a black boycott of the 1968 Olympic Games. OPHR, its lead organizer, Dr. Harry Edwards, and its primary athletic spokespeople, Smith and the 400-meter sprinter Lee Evans, were deeply influenced by the black freedom struggle. Their goal was nothing less than to expose how the United States used black athletes to project a lie about race relations both at home and internationally.

OPHR had four central demands: restore Muhammad Ali’s heavyweight boxing title, remove Avery Brundage as head of the International Olympic Committee, hire more black coaches, and disinvite South Africa and Rhodesia from the Olympics. Ali’s belt had been taken by boxing’s powers-that-be earlier in the year for his resistance to the Vietnam draft. By standing with Ali, OPHR was expressing its opposition to the war.

By calling for the hiring of more black coaches as well as the ouster of Brundage, they were dragging out of the shadows a part of Olympic history those in power wanted to bury: Brundage was an anti-Semite and a white supremacist, best remembered today for sealing the deal on Hitler’s hosting the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. By demanding the exclusion of South Africa and Rhodesia, they aimed to convey their internationalism and solidarity with the black freedom struggles against apartheid in Africa.

The wind went out of the sails of a broader boycott for many reasons, partly because the IOC re-committed to banning apartheid countries from the Games. The more pressing reason the boycott failed was that athletes who had spent their whole lives preparing for their Olympic moment simply couldn’t bring themselves to give it up.

There also emerged accusations of a campaign of harassment and intimidation orchestrated by people supportive of Brundage. Despite all of these pressures, a handful of Olympians was still determined to make a stand. In communities across the globe, they were hardly alone.

The lead-up to the Olympics in Mexico City was electric with struggle. Already in 1968, the world had seen the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, demonstrating that the United States was nowhere near “winning the war”; the Prague Spring, during which Czech students challenged tanks from the Stalinist Soviet Union, demonstrating that dissent was crackling on both sides of the Iron Curtain; and the April 4 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the urban uprisings that followed—along with the exponential growth of the Black Panther Party in the United States—that revealed a black freedom struggle unassuaged by the civil rights reforms that had transformed the Jim Crow South. Then, on October 2, 10 days before the opening ceremonies of the 1968 Olympic Games, Mexican security forces massacred hundreds of students and workers in Mexico City’s Tlatelolco Square.

Although the harassment and intimidation of the OPHR athletes cannot be compared to this slaughter, the intention was the same—to stifle protest and make sure that the Olympics were “suitable” for visiting dignitaries, heads of state, and an international audience. It was not successful.

On the second day of the Games, Smith and Carlos took their stand. Smith set a world record, winning the 200-meter gold, and Carlos captured the bronze. Smith then took out the black gloves. The silver medalist, a runner from Australia named Peter Norman, attached an Olympic Project for Human Rights patch onto his chest to show his solidarity on the medal stand.

As the stars and stripes ran up the flagpole and the national anthem played, Smith and Carlos bowed their heads and raised their fists in what was described across the globe as a “Black Power salute,” creating a moment that would define the rest of their lives. But there was far more to their actions on the medal stand than just the gloves. The two men wore no shoes to protest black poverty, as well as beads and scarves to protest lynching.

Within hours, the IOC planted a rumor that Smith and Carlos had been stripped of their medals—although this was not in fact true—and expelled from the Olympic Village. Brundage wanted to send a message to every athlete that there would be punishment for any political demonstrations on the field of play.

But Brundage was not alone in his furious reaction. The Los Angeles Times accused Smith and Carlos of a “Nazi-like salute”. Time had a distorted version of the Olympic logo on its cover but instead of the motto “Faster, Higher, Stronger,” it blared “Angrier, Nastier, Uglier.” The Chicago Tribune called the act “an embarrassment visited upon the country,” an “act contemptuous of the United States,” and “an insult to their countrymen.” Smith and Carlos were “renegades” who would come home to be “greeted as heroes by fellow extremists,” lamented the paper.

But the coup de grâce was by a young reporter for the Chicago American named Brent Musburger who called them “a pair of black-skinned storm troopers.”

But if Smith and Carlos were attacked from a multitude of directions, they also received many expressions of support, including from some unlikely sources. For example, the U.S. Olympic crew team, all white and entirely from Harvard, issued the following statement:

“We—as individuals—have been concerned about the place of the black man in American society in their struggle for equal rights. As members of the U.S. Olympic team, each of us has come to feel a moral commitment to support our black teammates in their efforts to dramatize the injustices and inequities which permeate our society.”

Smith and Carlos sacrificed privilege and glory, fame and fortune, for a larger cause—civil rights. As Carlos says, “A lot of the [black] athletes thought that winning [Olympic] medals would supersede or protect them from racism. But even if you won a medal, it ain’t going to save your momma. It ain’t going to save your sister or children. It might give you 15 minutes of fame, but what about the rest of your life?”

The story of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics deserves more than a visual sound bite in a quickie textbook section on “Black Power.” As the Zinn Education Project points out in its “If We Knew Our History” series, this is one of many examples of the missing and distorted history in school, which turns the curriculum into a checklist of famous names and dates. When we introduce students to the story of Smith and Carlos’ defiant gesture, we can offer a rich context of activism, courage, and solidarity that breathes life into the study of history—and the long struggle for racial equality.

Interrupting the Cycle of Violence

by Jennifer Morales

This week, PBS stations across the country will be airing “The Interrupters,” a powerful documentary about a daring and intimate approach to stopping the cycle of neighborhood violence in Chicago. Even as a person who already had a pretty fierce belief in people’s ability to teach and learn peace-building, this movie still blew my mind. I strongly encourage you to make time to watch it and let it change you.

Although the “Interrupters” profiled in the documentary are all adults, there is no age restriction on helping to build peaceful communities. “Chicago’s Peace Warriors,” Kazu Haga’s moving article about one Chicago high school’s embrace of Martin Luther King Jr.’s principles of nonviolence, shows that youth can learn to effectively interrupt our culture of violence, too.

The high school students in Haga’s article understand what’s at stake: Either we begin to actively teach and learn nonviolence or we’re choosing to expose another generation of young people to injury, prison, and early death. The lessons these students and “The Interrupters” teach are essential tools for dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline discussed throughout the current issue of Rethinking Schools.

Chicago’s Peace Warriors

By Kazu Haga

from the winter issue of Rethinking Schools

A group of students from Chicago’s North Lawndale College Preparatory High were in the middle of a weeklong summer training to become Peace Warriors—peer nonviolence leaders. Suddenly, a sophomore named Alicia got a text message alerting her that one of her close friends was just involved in a shooting and was in critical condition at the hospital.

A conversation about the violence in Chicago followed. At one point in the discussion, Tiffany Childress, science teacher and civic engagement director at the school, told the students: “This level of violence is not normal. I’ve seen wealthy neighborhoods in Chicago where young people getting shot is not part of the daily reality. Even in this neighborhood, 50 years ago we did not have this level of violence.”

The reactions came quickly.

“What!?”

“Really!?”

“How do you know that? You weren’t around 50 years ago!”

The students were surprised, confused, resistant. The violence in their communities has become so normalized that they literally could not believe that this does not happen everywhere, that this is not how it has always been. It was a chilling reminder of the need to inspire hope, to give youth a vision of peace.

North Lawndale, a charter school located in gang territory on the west side of Chicago, is working hard to provide that vision. In 2009, Chicago witnessed 458 murders—more than the number of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. Many of those killings involved teenagers. Yet, that same year, the rate of violence at the school dropped 70 percent.

Childress was at the heart of the change. “Several years ago there was a culture of violence that surrounded our school, and it was spiraling out of control,” she began. “We needed to do something to get a hold of it.”

That year, she had a conversation with a woman about Kingian Nonviolence at a birthday party. She was immediately interested and attended a presentation shortly thereafter. Kingian Nonviolence, she learned, is a training curriculum developed out of the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by two of his close allies, Bernard Lafayette Jr. and David Jehnsen. Used in schools, prisons, and communities around the world, it provides a framework to understand conflict and violence, and teaches communities a way to build peace.

King believed that nonviolence is not a passive, but a proactive force that can defeat violence and injustice. It is not about teaching people to turn the other cheek, but about teaching people how to confront the forces of violence and injustice in their lives and create a real, lasting peace. It is, as King put it, “the antidote to violence.”

Childress saw right away how this curriculum could offer a new way to deal with conflict and violence in her school. “I was blown away by the material after the first day,” she said.

With the support of school president John Horan, Childress facilitated a two-day workshop for the faculty as part of their professional development and organized a five-day training for a group of student leaders chosen by the teachers at the school. These were the first North Lawndale Peace Warriors, students who would lead their peers in creating a culture of peace in their school. “The kids are the most well equipped and knowledgeable source for figuring out how to make their schools peaceful,” Childress said. “They know their peers, they know what would make good incentives, they know who’s ready to jump off, so you have to make them an authority so they can have ownership of the process.”

The summer Peace Warrior training, which is now an annual event, includes a study of the principles and steps of Kingian Nonviolence (see sidebars below), the history of the Civil Rights Movement, and role plays dealing with conflict.

For example, one role play last summer involved a scenario in the school cafeteria: two boys getting into a conflict over a girl. A couple is sitting together. When the boy gets up to go get a drink, another boy comes and takes his seat next to the girl. When the first boy comes back, an argument begins to escalate. Just at the point where the conflict begins to boil over, the trainers had the actors pause.

Senior Kingian Nonviolence trainer Jonathan Lewis asked the students: “What are some nonviolent responses that the students could have taken that would have resulted in a different outcome?”

The ideas came quickly. “What if the first boy pulls up another chair and introduces himself to the second boy?” one young man suggested. The students realized that if they took a minute, they could think of dozens of ways to handle situations that easily escalate.

Lewis said: “One of the most important tenets of Kingian Nonviolence is to suspend your first judgment. Maybe the second boy meant no harm, and maybe the two kids would end up being great friends. Yet, in our society, we are always taught to distrust people. Having students think through possible nonviolent responses to conflict makes them realize that they already understand how to de-escalate conflict. They just need to get creative and they need to practice.”

For Leticia, a 16-year-old trainee, a key learning was the first of the six steps of Kingian Nonviolence, information gathering: “Most times, we take action before we even realize what the problem is. Whether it’s a schoolwide thing or a problem between two kids, we need to gather information and understand what’s really behind the problem before we act.

“I hope to stand up. We have problems in our school like gang violence and cyber bullying. It’s time for people to take action. We often complain about things, but we never talk about the situation and come up with a plan. I want to be the person who stands up and takes action, because it’s time.”

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Jennifer Morales is a member of the Rethinking Schools board of directors, and was an elected school board member in Milwaukee, Wisc.