Steve Eighinger

History has an uncanny way of repeating itself

By Herald-Whig
Posted: Jun. 11, 2020 12:01 am

At the time, I was beginning to come to grips with the world around me. I was moving from a rather naive 14-year-old to a full-fledged teenager who was beginning to care about what was happening around me.

It was the summer of 1968, and my country was in the midst of turmoil. There was rioting and looting in most major cities, events and causes tied to either civil rights or the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Earlier that same year, we were dealing with the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.

Growing up at that point in time was not easy. It was one of the most chaotic periods in American history -- much like today, and for many of the same reasons.

Back then, I had been able to hide from the "real world" by cocooning myself within the comfort of sports and was looking forward to doing so one evening in mid-October. I was looking forward to watching the Summer Olympic Games from Mexico City, which seemed like a perfect escape from the headlines connected with racial strife and the ongoing carnage in Vietnam.

That was the evening, however, that changed how I looked at the "real world" forever.

That was night we -- the American TV audience -- arguably saw politics and sports become intertwined (or inseparable, if you prefer) forever. U.S. sprinter Tommie Smith won the gold medal in the 200-meter race with a world-record time of 19.83 seconds. Teammate John Carlos finished third, securing the bronze medal. That would have normally been the most important story.

Smith and Carlos, however, staged their well-documented protest on the medal stand as the Star-Spangled Banner played.

The two U.S. athletes, both African-Americans, received their medals while standing shoeless, but wearing black socks to represent black poverty. Smith wore a black scarf around his neck to signify black pride, while Carlos had his track suit top unzipped to show solidarity with all blue-collar workers in America and wore a necklace of beads that he later described "were for those individuals that were lynched, or killed and that no one said a prayer for, (and for those who were) hung and tarred."

While the national anthem played, Smith and Carlos stood on the podium with black-gloved fists raised and heads bowed.

As they left the podium, they were booed by the crowd in Mexico City. The response back in the United States was harsh. Smith and Carlos were ostracized by much of the American athletic community and received death threats.

Time magazine wrote: "‘Faster, Higher, Stronger' is the motto of the Olympic Games. ‘Angrier, nastier, uglier' better describes the scene in Mexico City."

Brent Musburger, at the time a writer for the Chicago American newspaper before rising to prominence at CBS Sports and ESPN, described Smith and Carlos as "a couple of black-skinned storm troopers" who were "ignoble," "juvenile" and "unimaginative."

The actions taken by Smith and Carlos more than 50 years ago are still condemned by some today, but many have come to look at the statements they made in a different light.

I wonder if the knee San Francisco 49ers Colin Kaepernick took in 2016 during the national anthem -- and many more athletes are doing today -- will be looked at differently 50 years down the road? Kaepernick and others have said their actions were/are connected to efforts to bring attention to racial injustice and police brutality, among other things.

More than 50 years following the stance Smith and Carlos took, I still do not have any sort of absolute answer, even for myself, if that was the right thing to do. The same for what Kaepernick did.

Maybe the best answer(s) can be found separating two issues. How they protested may always be questioned, but what they were protesting cannot.

In the wake of recent events we have seen unfold in this country, I can assure you I am thinking more about the very subject(s) that Smith and Carlos initially targeted in 1968 and Kaepernick and many others are doing today.

I hope you are, too.