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kottke.org posts about 1968 Summer Olympics

The white man in the photo of the Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics)

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 18, 2016

Tommie Smith and John Carlos

During the medals ceremony for the 200 meter race the 1968 Olympics, gold medalist Tommie Smith and bronze medalist John Carlos, both standing shoeless on the podium, each raised one black-gloved fist in the air during the playing of the US national anthem as a gesture in support of the fight of better treatment of African Americans in the US. It was an historic moment immortalized in photos like the one above.

The white man in the photo, silver medalist Peter Norman from Australia, could be considered a sort of symbolic visual foil against which Smith and Carlos were protesting, but in fact Norman was a willing participant in the gesture and suffered the consequences.

Norman was a white man from Australia, a country that had strict apartheid laws, almost as strict as South Africa. There was tension and protests in the streets of Australia following heavy restrictions on non-white immigration and discriminatory laws against aboriginal people, some of which consisted of forced adoptions of native children to white families.

The two Americans had asked Norman if he believed in human rights. Norman said he did. They asked him if he believed in God, and he, who had been in the Salvation Army, said he believed strongly in God. “We knew that what we were going to do was far greater than any athletic feat, and he said “I’ll stand with you” — remembers John Carlos — “I expected to see fear in Norman’s eyes, but instead we saw love.”

Update: In 2011, Democracy Now! interviewed Carlos about the salute and the aftermath. He was joined by sportwriter Dave Zirin and the pair told a story about why Norman didn’t want to be represented alongside Carlos and Smith with a statue on the San Jose State campus:

DAVE ZIRIN: OK, just checking. Well, they made the decision to make this amazing work of art, these statues on campus. And they were just going to have Tommie Smith and John Carlos, with a blank space where Peter Norman stood. And when John heard about that, he said, “Oh, no, no. I don’t want to be a part of this. And I don’t even want this statue if Peter Norman’s not going to be on it.” And the people at San Jose State said, “Well, Peter said he didn’t want to be on it.” And John said, “OK, let’s go to the president’s office and get him on the phone.” So they called Peter Norman from the president’s office at San Jose State, and sure enough, they got Peter on the phone. I believe Peter said-what did he say? “Blimey, John”? What did he say?

JOHN CARLOS: Yeah, “Blimey, John. You’re calling me with these blimey questions here?” And I said to him, I said, “Pete, I have a concern, man. What’s this about you don’t want to have your statue there? What, are you backing away from me? Are you ashamed of us?” And he laughed, and he said, “No, John.” He said-you know, the deep thing is, he said, “Man, I didn’t do what you guys did.” He said, “But I was there in heart and soul to support what you did. I feel it’s only fair that you guys go on and have your statues built there, and I would like to have a blank spot there and have a commemorative plaque stating that I was in that spot. But anyone that comes thereafter from around the world and going to San Jose State that support the movement, what you guys had in ‘68, they could stand in my spot and take the picture.” And I think that’s the largest thing any man would ever do. And as I said, I don’t think that my co-partner, my co-heart, Tommie Smith, would have done what Peter Norman done in that regards. He was just a tremendous individual.

(via @unlikelywords)