This week’s 50th anniversary of Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ iconic protest at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics is not only an opportunity to revisit their courageous act, but also a reminder that the controversies of our own day are but the latest chapter in a storied history of sports and social protest that began long ago. As Ecclesiastes taught: “There is nothing new under the sun.”
While the trigger for their protest began with the readmission of apartheid South Africa to the Olympic Games, it came to encompass racial injustices in Africa and America writ large. Upon their victory, sprinters Smith and Carlos (gold and bronze medal winners, respectively) were brought to the dressing room beneath the stadium to await the presentation of their medals, where Smith produced the black gloves — right for him, left for Carlos — the focal point for the gesture to follow. “The national anthem is a sacred song to me,” Smith said to Carlos. “This can’t be sloppy. It has to be clean and abrupt.” Moments later, with a black scarf around Smith’s neck, human rights buttons on their lapels and with black stocking feet, both men stood with their heads bowed and fists raised for the duration of the ninety second American anthem. As Smith would later explain in sports sociologist Harry Edwards’ book “The Revolt of the Black Athlete”: “[M]y raised hand stood for the power in black America. Carlos’ raised hand stood for the unity of black America. Together they formed an arch of unity and power. The black scarf around my neck stood for black pride. The black socks with no shoes stood for black poverty in racist America. The totality of our effort was the regaining of black dignity.”
The response was immediate. The U.S. Olympic committee warned all athletes that severe penalties would follow any further protests, and Smith and Carlos were suspended from the Olympic team and given 48 hours to leave Mexico. In the days to follow, the image of Smith and Carlos with fists pumped in the air would be reproduced on the front pages of every newspaper, and in the decades to follow, in every high school American history textbook — one of, if not the most, iconic image of social protest on record.
In his retrospective on the subject, Edwards situates the protest of Smith and Carlos in the third of four waves of black athletic activism. The first wave began with Jesse Owens’ victory at the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany, or Joe’s Louis’ defeat of Max Schmeling — as black athletes sought to establish the basic legitimacy of their athletic prowess. The second wave, roughly from 1946-1965 can be characterized as a struggle for access with athletes like Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby in Baseball; Woodie Strode and Kenny Washington in football, and Earl Lloyd and Chuck Cooper in basketball. The third wave of athletic activism was led by athletes such as Bill Russell, Jim Brown, Arthur Ashe and Ernie Warlick, who leveraged their talents, success, and celebrity towards seeking dignity, equality and justice for black people across society — an era embodied most famously by Muhammad Ali’s famed declaration: “I ain’t got no problem with them Vietcong,” his refusal to serve in Vietnam and the stripping of his boxing license and title.
By the 1980s and ’90s the social movements of the prior decades began to wane. The loss of leaders with the moral and organizational authority of a Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X, the reluctance of certain athletes to take on leadership roles (think Michael Jordan’s “Republicans buy gym shoes too…” or Charles Barkley’s “I am not a role model.”) and the premature presumption that America was entering a post-racial era, all resulting in a brief hiatus of black athlete activism … until of course, the Movement for Black Lives. Be it the 2012 hoodie protest of the Miami Heat, the 2015 “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” gesture by the five players on the St. Louis Rams, the “I Can’t Breathe T-shirt” of LeBron James and, of course, the much-debated kneeling of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, the fourth wave of black athletic activism is very much in full stride. By this telling, neither the protests themselves nor the response of the establishment is new. In fact, the only interesting thing about our era is that in times past, certainly the case of Smith, Carlos and Ali — protests came at a great financial and social cost for any athlete who placed principle over profit. Today it would seem, it is not an either/or proposition. One can, it would seem, both protest and sign with a major shoe company.
While sports enthusiasts and First Amendment scholars can debate the motivations and methods of present-day protesting athletes, one need look no further than this week’s Torah reading to know the Jewish view regarding the free exercise of conscience. It is Abraham, our moral exemplar as Jews, who the midrash explains is called “ha-ivri” (from the Hebrew root meaning “the other”) because he was willing to stand on one side of the world as the rest of the world stood on the other. Abraham was willing to stand in the breach putting himself at great risk — not only for his own kin, as he would on behalf of Lot and his family but also on behalf of those altogether undeserving of his aid — as in the case of the wicked citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Unlike Noah, whose moral stature is qualified by his unwillingness or inability to respond to either the wickedness of his day or God’s decree, Abraham understood that given his privileged relationship with God it was incumbent upon him to speak truth to power towards redressing the injustices of his day. From Abraham, to Moses in the house of Pharaoh, to Queen Esther in the royal court to the privileged pulpits of contemporary American Jewry, it is the willingness of individuals to leverage their advantaged position to call out the ills of society that has been the Jewish measure of moral leadership through the ages. As the Talmud teaches: “Anyone who is able to protest against the transgressions of the entire world and does not, is held accountable for the transgressions of the entire world” [b. Shabbat 54b-55a].
The question is not whether one agrees or disagrees with the causes for which contemporary athletes are protesting. In a free society, anyone who disagrees with these or other protests has the self-same right to advocate peaceably on behalf of their own views. The question is whether athletes, given the attention, wealth and celebrity we, their complicit fans, bestow upon them have the right to speak out and protest on behalf of the causes for which they believe. As a Jew, one could go so far as to say that not only do they have the right — but they have the obligation to do so.
More than the 19.8 seconds of lightning-fast speed in their 200-meter sprint dash, 50 years later — it is the 90 seconds of statuesque protest that we remember this week. As Jews, the litmus test for moral rectitude has always been measured by way of our willingness to stand for the things we know are right — even when, if not especially when, it is uncomfortable to do so. As Tommie Smith and John Carlos reminded us 50 years ago, it is the content of our character, not the number of our medals, that will ultimately be memorialized by the judgements of history.
Elliot Cosgrove is the rabbi of Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan.