Friday, April 04, 2008

The Olympics, a call for a boycott and a controversial black minister – 40 years ago

In the news an Olympic host cracks down on dissent at home, there is talk of an Olympic boycott over human rights and a controversial black minister speaks out. 2008? No, 1968.

The 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico was surrounded by controversy.

The Olympic Project for Human Rights or OPHR was an organization established by sociologist Harry Edwards. The aim of the organization was to protest racism in the United States, apartheid in South Africa and racism in sports generally. The group advocated a boycott of the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games.

The OPHR included prominent blacks, athletes and non-athletes, from a wide variety of political/apolitical viewpoints including H. Rap Brown,m Stokely Carmichael, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (who would be assassinated in April of 1968), college basketball star Lew Alcindor (who ended up, along with some UCLA teammates, boycotting anyway), Floyd McKissick, Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali.

In the meantime, ten days before the start of the games, up to 5000 students marched in Mexico City to protest the government’s expenditures on the event. Riot police opened fire on the crowd and between 200 and 400 students were killed.

The OPHR boycott did not have much effect but protests continued in other forms. This time two black American track and field runners, John Carlos and Tommie Smith, made a controversial stand against racism in the United States. Teammates at San Jose University, Tommie Smith and John Carlos were both competitors in the 200-meter race. Smith won the gold with the time of 19.5 seconds and Carlos won the bronze.

At the medal ceremony, Smith and Carlos stood on the platform wearing black socks without shoes, they both wore an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge, and Smith wore a black scarf around his neck. As the American flag was raised and the National Anthem was played, Smith and Carlos bowed their heads and each raised a gloved fist in the black power salute.

Because of their actions, the Olympic Committee barred them from competing in other events. Back in the United States, instead of receiving a celebration of their achievements, they were subjected to death threats and their actions were the subject of widespread debate. However, they did receive support from civil rights leaders.

While at the time, Smith and Carlos’ method of protest was controversial, years later they were honored for their actions on numerous occasions.

Below is a film clip of Martin Luther King speaking about the proposed boycott of the Olympics in 1968.

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