Thursday, October 16, 2008

40 years ago in Mexico City

It’s been 40 years now since Tommy Smith and John Carlos stood atop an Olympic Medal podium in Mexico City. The two American track athletes claimed the gold and bronze medals in the 200-meter event, with Smith doing it in world record time. They approached the podium shoeless, wearing only black socks to represent the poverty faced by African Americans of the 60s. They stood tall in their podium positions, received their medals, and as the American flag is raised and the National anthem did sound, Smith and Carlos raised a gloved fist above their lowered heads, a non-violent protest of America’s inequalities.

Their actions prompted the removal of the pair from the Olympic Games, as ordered by the IOC. Back home, they received death threats, and were blacklisted, having difficulties finding employment and housing. America revealed their hate for two individuals symbolizing America’s freedom of expression. 40 years later, we look back and realize how much courage it took during a time of racial tension for anyone to even take it upon themselves to express their frustrations on the world’s biggest stage. These weren’t politicians. These were average men. They were you and I, as well as our neighbors. We sit in our homes today, each with political views, and each with fair amount of dissent in various areas of American politics, and our thoughts an opinions go unheard, and are cast aside as a silent vote. But how many of us, knowing that our expressed freedom would result in unemployment, public resentment, and threats against our lives, would still speak those words or perform those acts of protest. Few, if any, would have the courage to accept the punishment.

The Mexico City protest hits home for me. Not because it affected my life in 1968, but because it marked the first heated disagreement I ever had with my girlfriend. Her stance, the protest was an embarrassment to America, and the athletes deserved to be removed. My stance, America suffered greater embarrassment before the games, with human rights issues. She viewed it as unnecessary, and the use of an improper forum. I viewed it as courageous, with the only alternate forum being the same as we all share now, our homes, where not a single ear or eye of power will give us a glance or listen.

It finally came down to education. She repeated words as taught to her in her Washington school district. The district teachings continued to blackball the athletes for their act, without ever reflecting on issues that brought about cause. This prompted the “Little Giant”, as friends tend to call her, standing only 5’1, but appearing as an enormous presence for community related issues, to approach her district and the board. She demanded to know why she was cheated of an education. She demanded to know why more than 30 years later, the district was still clinging to curriculums from the early 70s. She wanted to know why the teachings at her school resulted in her speaking without knowing. Ironically, a member of that board, and a good friend of her family, was a civil rights activist of the 1960s, and marched with Martin Luther King. In the end, the little giant forced change, assisting in the betterment of education in the State of Washington.

You can see how far we’ve come, since those fists were raised in the air. This is a nation that imposed sanctions on South Africa, for human rights violations that mirrored our own. Look at the recent Summer Games, and the outrage of media censorship and the Chinese government disallowing any content that displays political protest. Carlos and Smith were tagged as “radicals” of their time, for a non-violent act. 4 years later, the world got a glimpse of true radicals in Munich, as innocence became victim to a cowardly act of terrorism, expression in the violent form.

To bring about change, there must first be recognition of a problem. Many men and women throughout history have made sacrifices to bring awareness before we could act on solution. 40 years ago, two of those men raised a fist in the thin air of Mexico City. And 40 years later, I give them their honor and remembrance.

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