John Carlos and Tommie Smith, each raising a fist on the medal stand at the 1968 Olympics, have become an icon of that decade, and that climate, and of the changes that were a-coming. They're heroes now, but that the time they were seen by many as traitors, and agitators, and by at least one up-and-coming sports writer, as "black-skinned storm troopers."
That memorable line comes from one Brent Musburger, fresh from getting kicked out of Medill and toiling away at the doomed Chicago American. Before Musburger became the down-home doyen of CBS, or the weathered pro trotted out by ESPN to let you know that this event is big, he was paying his dues with the unglamorous written word. Reporting from Mexico City, here's Musburger's take on the protest. (I'm blockquoting a very large part of this story, because with a single quote that inflammatory, context is important.)
Bizarre Protest by Smith, Carlos Tarnishes Medals
by Brent Musburger
MEXICO CITY-Tommie Smith and John Carlos must be labeled unimaginative blokes if they can't come up with a stronger and more effective protest than the one they staged her last night during the Olympic medal ceremony honoring their accomplishments in the 200-meter run.
Smith and Carlos looked like a couple of black-skinned storm troopers, holding aloft their black-gloved hands during the playing of the National Anthem. They sprinkled their symbolism with black track shoes and black scarfs and black power medals. It's destined to go down as the most unsubtle demonstration in the history of protest.
But you've got to give Smith and Carlos credit for one thing. They knew how to deliver whatever it was they were trying to deliver on international television, thus insuring maximum embarrassment for the country that is picking up the tab for their room and board here in Mexico City. One gets a little tired of having the United States run down by athletes who are enjoying themselves at the expense of their country.
Protesting and working constructively against racism in the United States is one thing, but airing one's dirty clothing before the entire world during a fun and games tournament was no more than a juvenile gesture by a couple of athletes who should have known better.
If Smith and Carlos were convinced that the ends justified their black power demonstration during the National Anthem, they should have avoided the award ceremony altogether. If it's true, as Hayes Jones says, that an athlete competes for himself but walks to the stand for his country, then a more courageous protest would have been for Smith and Carlos simply to stay away and not pick up their medals.
Their ignoble performance on the victory stand completely overshadowed a magnificent performance by two black athletes. It's a shame. Smith will not now be remembered as that splendid runner who so thoroughly demolished the world's record that he ran the last 10 yards with both arms held high in triumph over his head as he crashed through the finish line in the fantastic time of 19.8.
He will instead be remembered as the militant black who shook a black glove and black track shoe during the playing of the National Anthem. It hardly seems on the level with his first accomplishment, and it did absolutely nothing to relax racial tensions any place.
The article, lost for decades, was dug up on microfilm by The Nation's Dave Zirin, who co-authored a book with John Carlos. It's 44 years later, and while his comments are occasionally brought up as a black mark against the widely loved Musburger, Zirin writes that "it's time Brent Musburger apologized for slandering these two young men."
Musburger was actively, viscerally in the wrong multiple times. He wrote that the protest could have been stronger, could have been more courageous, could have been more effective. It could not have been. Musburger called them juvenile and ignoble, when history views them as anything but. Most telling, Musburger wrote that "it did absolutely nothing to relax racial tensions any place," which is the precise point to make if you want to prove you just don't get it.
Musburger's facts were fine, his editorializing suspect, and his sense of the big picture woefully off-base. It's a great debate, then: Should a writer feel obligated to own up to something that turned out to be solidly on the wrong side of history, even if it might have been the majority opinion at the time? There's not a writer alive who wouldn't cringe upon being confronted with the worst of their early work. But in Musburger's case, he and his type "made the lives of John Carlos and Tommie Smith that much harder," as Zirin writes. So who would deserve an apology, the men or the movement?
Musburger did address his article once, briefly and obliquely. On the occasion of a 1999 HBO documentary on the 1968 Olympics, he mostly stood by what he had written so long ago:
Musburger, now with ABC Sports, said yesterday that his words were ''a bit harsh,'' yet questioned the value of the gloved-fist salute. ''Did it improve anything?'' he asked, then added, ''Smith and Carlos aside, I object to using the Olympic awards stand to make a political statement.''
He didn't appear to have gotten it. Carlos and Smith's gesture did improve things, in the same sense that every act of disobedience and protest were drops in a bucket that eventually overflowed. Movements need symbols, and this, a silent moment in front of the world, was as potent a symbol as they come.
Musburger seems set against the very idea of Olympic protests, and not Carlos and Smith personally. That "fun and games tournament" is no place for the real world, Musburger argued in 1968 and argued in 1999. That's a depressing statement to make, especially for an ambitious writer just getting started in the business. What young professional, fresh-faced and optimistic, doesn't believe deep down that sport can be used for bigger and more important purposes? Sadly, one who was on the scene for one of those rare occasions where a fun and games tournament does change the world.
There's a line in the piece that served as Musburger's thesis statement: "Perhaps it's time that 20-year-old athletes quit passing themselves off as social philosophers." Better they than an old boys club looking to keep the boat from rocking.