'I had no choice'

Linda DeMers Hummel

July 24, 1992|By Linda DeMers Hummel

I WAS a young woman at a mostly white northern college the October evening I watched black Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos raise gloved fists and bow their heads in solemn defiance on the winners' podium in Mexico City.

I thought it was the most beautiful act I had ever witnessed.

It was 1968, and Tommie Smith was my hero. Two other men I had worshiped from afar with fierce teen-age idealism that year were Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. They had been dead a matter of months when the Olympics took place, and although I was excited at the prospect of a gold medal for the athlete whose college career I had followed closely, the Earth had still not resumed its rightful orbit for me that autumn.

Perhaps the 200-meter -- was my sophomoric metaphor for the racial equality I wanted to believe was just around the corner in America. I must have thought (and there is a wince in acknowledging this) that even though Carlos and Smith couldn't have a job like my father's, live in our neighborhood or go to our church, at least for now they could win their races and wear their medals.

The rest would naturally follow, just as Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary said it would. Soon.

While I had missed the point entirely, not so Harry Edwards. A teacher at San Jose State, he had tried to organize a black athlete boycott of the Olympics, using a rallying cry whose corollary would become a Vietnam stand-by: "What does it profit a black man to win a gold medal if when he comes home he is still a nigger?"

The boycott failed to materialize, but Tommie Smith and John Carlos ran their race knowing full well what they would do as the National Anthem played. In that symbolic moment, each slowly, deliberately raised an arm (Smith the right arm, Carlos the left) and lowered his head. Then I got it. Having represented their country in world competition, they would come home to a place where in more restaurants than not they would not be served.

They were right.

Forty-eight hours later, they were back in the United States, having "profaned Olympic principles by advertising their domestic political views," said the U.S. Olympics Committee.

Smith and Carlos have lived quiet ives since then, both acknowledging some tough years of fending off angry criticism. Many Americans were patently fearful of the rage at the heart of the black power movement; some felt the athletes had maligned the anthem; most wanted to believe that civil rights would be achieved in their lifetimes and didn't see what all the fuss was about.

In the 24 years since Mexico City, American blacks have defied racism with noble acts as well as counter-racism that has made Smith's and Carlos' symbolism positively halcyon. Legislation has failed; legislation has passed. "The Star-Spangled Banner" has been desecrated by a host of musical infidels from Jimi Hendrix to Roseanne Arnold.

Many folks still don't know what all the fuss is about. South Central Los Angeles still burned.

Asked why he raised his arm that evening, Tommie Smith answers simply: "I had no choice."

One whole generation later, and it turns out he was absolutely right.

Linda DeMers Hummel writes from Timonium.

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