The Story Behind the Iconic Black Power Salute Photo at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City

You may know his name, and you def­i­nite­ly know the icon­ic pho­to of him stand­ing next to Tom­mie Smith and Peter Nor­man on the medals podi­um at the 1968 Olympics in Mex­i­co City, his black-gloved fist raised next to Smith’s in defi­ance of racial injus­tice. But you may know lit­tle more about John Car­los. Many of us learned about him the same way stu­dents at a South­ern Cal­i­for­nia high school, where he worked as a coun­selor after retir­ing from run­ning, did: “Man, we see this pic­ture in the his­to­ry book and they don’t have any sto­ry about it,” he remem­bers some kids telling him. “It’s just a two-lin­er with the people’s names.”

The Vox Dark­room video above packs more than a cap­tion ver­sion of his his­to­ry in just under 10 min­utes. The silent protest, we learn, fol­lowed a threat­ened boy­cott from the ath­letes ear­li­er in the year, sup­port­ed by Mar­tin Luther King, Jr., who appears in a clip. Instead, they went on to win medal after medal. We also learn much more about how all three run­ners on the podi­um, includ­ing Sil­ver-win­ning Aussie Peter Nor­man, par­tic­i­pat­ed by wear­ing but­tons sup­port­ing the Olympic Project for Human Rights. Found­ed by for­mer ath­lete and activist Har­ry Edwards, the orga­ni­za­tion aimed to strate­gi­cal­ly dis­rupt U.S. Olympic suc­cess by “opt­ing out of the games,” refus­ing to give Black ath­letes’ labor to sports that refused to com­bat racism.

Twen­ty years before these actions, Black ath­letes became potent sym­bols of the boot­strap­ping Amer­i­can suc­cess sto­ry for the media, long before the end of legal seg­re­ga­tion. As his­to­ry pro­fes­sor Dex­ter Black­man says in the video, the mes­sage became, “if Jack­ie Robin­son can make it, then why can’t oth­er Blacks make it?” This “myth of racial progress” could not sur­vive the 1960s. By the time of Smith and Car­los’ arrival in Mex­i­co City in Octo­ber of 1968, Mar­tin Luther King had been assas­si­nat­ed. Cities around the coun­try were erupt­ing as frus­tra­tion over failed Civ­il Rights efforts boiled over. Nei­ther Car­los nor Smith wear shoes in their podi­um pho­to, in protest of the pover­ty that per­sist­ed in Black com­mu­ni­ties.

The three paid a price for their state­ment. The protest was called “a delib­er­ate and vio­lent breach of the fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ples of the Olympic spir­it” by the IOC pres­i­dent, who had not object­ed to Nazi salutes when he had been an Olympic offi­cial in 1936. Nor­man, who seems com­plete­ly obliv­i­ous at first glance in the pho­to­graph, “returned home to Aus­tralia a pari­ah,” CNN writes, “suf­fer­ing unof­fi­cial sanc­tion and ridicule as the Black Pow­er salute’s for­got­ten man. He nev­er ran in the Olympics again.” Smith fared bet­ter, though he was sus­pend­ed with Car­los from the Olympic team. He left run­ning, played NFL foot­ball, won sev­er­al awards and com­men­da­tions, and became a track coach and soci­ol­o­gy pro­fes­sor at Ober­lin.

In an essay at Vox, Car­los describes how “the mood in the sta­di­um went straight to ven­om” after the two raised their fists. “The first 10 years after those Olympics were hell for me. A lot of peo­ple walked away from me…. they were afraid. What they saw hap­pen­ing to me, they didn’t want it to hap­pen to them and theirs.” His kids, he said “were tor­ment­ed,” his mar­riage “crum­bled.” Still, he would do it again. Car­los embod­ies the same uncom­pro­mis­ing atti­tude, one that refus­es to silent­ly accept racism, even while stand­ing (or kneel­ing) in silence. “If you’re famous and you’re black,” he writes, “you have to be an activist. That’s what I’ve tried to do my whole life.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Muham­mad Ali Gives a Dra­mat­ic Read­ing of His Poem on the Atti­ca Prison Upris­ing

Great Cul­tur­al Icons Talk Civ­il Rights: James Bald­win, Mar­lon Bran­do, Har­ry Bela­fonte & Sid­ney Poiti­er (1963)

How Jazz Helped Fuel the 1960s Civ­il Rights Move­ment

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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