Sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos made history at the 1968 Summer Olympic games, but not for their athletic prowess. As the gold- and bronze-medal winners stood on the medal podium, with the National Anthem playing, each raised one gloved fist (they only had one pair of gloves and had to share) as part of the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR), an offshoot of the civil rights movement. They made one of the most political statements of protest in the history of sports–and a truly iconic gesture.
Though there will be no summer games this year (the next Summer Olympics are scheduled for 2020 in Tokyo), the shadow of potential controversy looms over the Winter Olympic Games, underway now in Pyeongchang, South Korea. These games follow on the heels of headline-making public protests by professional and collegiate athletes. For some perspective, we talked to Kevin Marinelli, visiting assistant professor of communication studies and expert in rhetoric, about Smith and Carlos' actions and how they remain relevant to this day.
Do you see parallels between Smith and Carlos' protest and the NFL controversy this year?
I do. The National Anthem is a highly symbolic ritual, so it makes sense to utilize this moment for symbolic protest. In the case of Smith and Carlos, the victory ceremony was supposed to transform their marginalized status as African Americans into celebrated American heroes. Smith and Carlos reject that transformation to highlight their oppression. The very moment Americans wish to see past race–to remain colorblind–Smith and Carlos remove their athletic shoes and force Americans to see their race first and foremost. Essentially, Smith and Carols tell their audience, "No, we're not going to give that to you. We want you to see our humanity. We want you to see us for who we are outside of this athletic context."
The gesture–raising their fists–however, is more confrontational than kneeling, right?
Yes. The gloved fist was definitely associated with the black power movement– and their action was widely misinterpreted because of that. That is why they identify their protest as a "silent gesture," as opposed to a "black power" fist. They were not opposed to the black power movement, but they were not exactly a part of it either. Afterward, they were very clear to stress the broad call for action they intended. They are signaling a desire for equality; not a call for retribution. And it's important to note that they are doing more than simply raising their fists. They are bowing their heads. They are silent. It's a very sophisticated, elegant and mitigated protest in many ways.
So, the real power of the moment comes from the timing more than the gesture itself?
It's certainly a combination of both. In rhetoric, we use the Greek term, "kairos," which basically means timing. It means seeking the opportune moment to say or do something. And this was a highly opportune moment to bring attention to their cause. Not only do they have a captivated audience, but they are also able to incorporate so many institutional symbols–the flag, the podium, the anthem, the gaze of the audience–into their rhetorical performance. They turned the medal ceremony upside-down essentially, and exposed the hypocrisy embedded within it. And perhaps most importantly, they did all of this while still participating respectfully in the medal ceremony. They disrupted the moment, but they did not destroy it. We can think of their protest as a form of symbolic jiu-jitsu.
Still, it was an unmistakable disruption. People were uncomfortable with it. Just as they're uncomfortable with Colin Kaepernick's–and other NFL players'–protests today. Interestingly, some have attempted to defend Kaepernick by sanitizing his protest and trying to make people comfortable with it. But protests are supposed to make people uncomfortable. They're designed to be disruptive. If everyone were content with this protest, it wouldn't do its job.
So, 50 years after Smith and Carlos, do you think Americans' perceptions of protests have changed?
No, I don't think so. Our perceptions of issues change, but our perception of protest remains uneasy, because protest always bucks the status quo. Today, we look back and we celebrate Smith and Carlos because we can agree overwhelmingly on what they were protesting. But people were not ready to hear those sentiments at the time, and certainly not in that context. The same goes for today. People are very protective of their symbolic rituals and the institutions they aim to preserve. Perhaps 50 years from now people will look back at Kaepernick's protest against institutional racism as an obvious and necessary move to shed light on an important issue. But that's not how the majority of people see it today, just as it was not how people saw Smith and Carlos' protest then.
An interesting distinction between the protests is that Smith and Carlos had a one-shot deal, whereas Kaepernick was engaged in a recurring demonstration. Thus Kaepernick was able to facilitate a spirited public dialogue over issues pertaining to race, along with the merits and functions of protest itself. It was quite interesting to witness it evolve, to see Kaepernick negotiate his demonstration in light of myriad competing perspectives.
Concerning Smith and Carlos, you heard a lot of the same arguments you hear today: The athletes are spoiled and should simply be happy to be where they are. In 1968, President Lyndon Johnson had just passed the enormous civil rights legislation and so, technically, the civil rights movement had just hit a major milestone. So there was very much the same kind of talk we hear today, that Smith and Carlos were ungrateful–that they should be happy with what the civil rights movement had achieved. Sadly, it seems that argument has not changed much in 50 years. More optimistically, however, the debate has also become more sensitive and sophisticated in many ways.