Fist to Knee
Fifty years from now, Colin Kaepernick’s place in history as an agent for progressive change will be secured. He’ll be remembered as the NFL quarterback who sacrificed his career to spark a national debate about race in America and ignited a movement.
To many, he will be hailed as an icon — or as something else to others in our polarized society — for providing a voice and unwavering stance for those often marginalized without a platform.
Kaepernick, who played for the San Francisco 49ers, took a knee during the national anthem to protest social injustices that largely impact African Americans and other people of color, including the killing of too many unarmed Blacks by White police officers, and he made America pay attention.
Someone like Kaepernick, using the grand stage of the nation’s most popular sports league, needed to take a stand.
Just like Tommie Smith and John Carlos.
Yes, history, which offers so many opportunities to learn, sometimes repeats itself. That’s what’s so striking in connecting the dots between the activism of athletes today and those who were compelled to make statements in past generations.
For Kaepernick, it was taking a knee.
For Smith and Carlos, it was raising black-gloved fists in a different place and time.
Fifty years ago, Smith and Carlos, gold and bronze medalists for the USA in the 200-meter dash, respectively, cemented their place in history on the medal stand during the playing of The Star-Spangled Banner at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City.
Talk about a grand platform.
“At the time, the Olympics was the only place to protest,” Carlos recalled recently during a visit to the Kansas City Central Academy of Excellence, as detailed by The Kansas City Star. “I wanted to reach for the corners of the earth. It was my Internet. I was trying to reach as many people as I could.
“When Colin Kaepernick made that statement, the world saw him,” said Carlos. “When I raised my fist, I raised my voice. I raised it for all of us. It’s your responsibility as an athlete.”
Smith and Carlos can relate to Kaepernick’s gesture like few others can. His stance inspired many of his NFL peers and other athletes on various levels in several sports, to follow suit in taking a knee or protesting with their own statements.
“Hopefully, this is the age of awakening — or you can call it the age of re-awakening,” Smith said during an interview with USA Today Sports. “These guys are beginning to stand up. They see, ‘Oh, my goodness gracious, that pertains to me.’”
Although Kaepernick is the most prominent example of a new wave of athletes in this generation, with more in their ranks willing to take on social issues, the responsibility that Carlos spoke of has too often been shunned by some of the biggest African-American megastars. Think O.J. Simpson (in his heyday), Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods.
What makes Kaepernick special — and despised by others, such as protest-bashing President Donald Trump — is that he was willing to embrace a certain duty for the good of his people. Kaepernick is now in a lineup of activist athletes including Paul Robeson, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali and Jim Brown. His purpose may not be popular with certain segments of America, but somebody had to do it.
“He’s being vilified in how he brings the truth out,” Smith said. “I support him because he’s bringing the truth out — regardless of how it’s done. If it’s not done violently, at least he should be heard.”
The feeling is mutual. Kaepernick has stated that before he launched his protest, he studied the events surrounding Mexico City and other situations from that era in the turbulent 1960s, including Ali’s refusal to enlist in the Army, which caused him to be stripped of his boxing crown and ostracized by society. That Kaepernick was inspired to the point of wanting to emulate Smith and Carlos adds so much substance to the power of history.
It’s unfortunate, though, that many of the issues that moved Smith and Carlos to protest on Oct. 16, 1968 — and sacrifice their careers as world-class track sprinters — are still issues that America is grappling with 50 years after they raised their fists.
“It’s almost like ’68 has come back through the mirror,” reflected Harry Edwards. “[It’s] the same issues, including police killings of African Americans.”
Perhaps more than anyone, Edwards understands the link between the 1968 Olympic protests and the movement ignited by Kaepernick. A longtime consultant to the 49ers, he has served as an adviser for Kaepernick.
In 1967, Edwards founded the organization, the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) on the campus of San Jose State College (now San Jose State University). Edwards was a scholarship athlete and honors student at SJSC. In September 1967, he organized a campus rally to protest institutionalized racism and discrimination against African Americans.
It was considered a radical action at the time, which is why in succeeding months, Edwards — who made public appearances wearing an all-black ensemble that was accented by a beret, dark shades and a thick beard — became targeted for FBI surveillance much like the Black Panthers operating in nearby Oakland.
The campus rally led Edwards, who detested the exploitation of Black athletes at White colleges and universities, to organize Black football players to participate in a planned boycott of the season-opening game against Texas Western University (now the University of Texas—El Paso).
It was the same leverage that roughly 30 African-American football players at the University of Missouri used in 2015 when they lent their support to a group of Black students protesting the school’s weak handling of racial tensions on campus and calling for the ouster of the university’s president, Tim Wolfe. After players threatened to boycott a game against Brigham Young University, the university changed course and Wolfe resigned.
SJSC canceled its game against Texas Western in 1967, rather than risk the embarrassment of fielding an all-White team. The power move, in addition to sparking fundamental changes on campus, gave momentum to what became the OPHR.
The original goal of the OPHR was for all Black athletes to boycott the ’68 Olympics. Four key demands: Olympic invitations for apartheid-ruled South Africa and Rhodesia withdrawn. Restoration of Muhammad Ali’s heavyweight title. The removal of Avery Brundage as president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The hiring of more African-American coaches.
Although the IOC withdrew invitations to South Africa and Rhodesia, the other demands were not met. The movement failed to expand into a widescale boycott.
Smith and Carlos were members of the “Speed City” track squad at SJSC. They were compelled to do something in the name of human rights, a statement denouncing discriminatory injustices at home. They knew the risks, given the death threats and hate mail they received before the Olympics as buzz circulated that the OPHR planned some form of a protest.
Edwards was never in Mexico City, leaving Smith and Carlos to determine the extent of their protests. Months after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Smith was fearful that he would be shot on the victory stand if he protested. History is grateful that they carried on.
Carlos told the crowd during his visit to the Kansas City school that the purpose of any demonstration “is to be like a lighthouse … shine a light beyond where you stand.”
It is an iconic image now, captured for the world to see and interpret for the ages: Smith at the top of the medal stand with his right hand thrust upward in the classic Black Power salute as he wore a black glove. Carlos, with a black glove on his left hand, similarly thrust skyward. The silver medalist, Australian Peter Norman, stood respectfully in their midst at attention — while wearing an OPHR badge to demonstrate his solidarity with Smith and Carlos.
Smith said afterward that his right hand symbolized power in Black America, while Carlos’s left hand stood for unity in Black America. Together, he explained, they formed an arc of unity and Black power. The black scarf wrapped around Smith’s neck was for Black pride. They removed their shoes, bearing black socks, which symbolized Black poverty in racist America. He added that the totality represented a reacquisition of Black dignity.
The backlash was swift. The United States Olympic Committee demanded that Smith and Carlos relinquish their medals (they did not) and revoked their visas, which gave them 48 hours to return to the United States. Although Smith held 11 world records, including the time of 19.58 in the gold medal-winning 200 that stood for 11 years, his track career was over. He was banned from further competition in the U.S. and abroad.
Beyond that, Smith, Carlos and their family members were threatened and harassed with racially tinged actions. For example, Smith noted in his autobiography, Silent Gesture, that dead bugs, cow manure and nasty notes were put in his mailbox. Also, his parents were targeted with hate, taunts and threats and his siblings were harassed. Both also contended that stress flowing from their protest contributed to their failed marriages.
While Carlos returned to San Jose State College, leading the school to its first NCAA track championship in 1969, Smith ultimately wound up on the bottom of the roster with the Cincinnati Bengals. He played about seven games over 2½ years with the Bengals. Carlos tried football, too, but his athletic career fizzled after an unsuccessful NFL tryout and a brief stint in the Canadian Football League.
Smith went on to earn a master’s degree and taught sociology at Santa Monica College for 27 years. Carlos stayed near the track circuit, with jobs including working as a rep for Puma and as a high school track coach.
Five decades later, Kaepernick landed a prominent role in Nike’s “Just Do It” 30th anniversary campaign and has been lauded by several human rights organizations for his willingness to protest. But in the prime of his career, the man who led the 49ers to a Super Bowl has been unable to land another NFL job. He’s viewed as toxic by decision-makers despite the dearth of quarterback talent in the league. It has resulted in Kaepernick’s pursuit of a grievance against the NFL for collusion.
Even so, there’s no denying his impact. Without Kaepernick’s protests, there would not have been the unprecedented dialogue from the NFL on social issues. Although Kaepernick doesn’t have an NFL job, his stand was a driving force for the NFL’s engagement with a coalition of players for a $90 million social justice initiative. And though he’s no longer on the field, other players have taken up Kaepernick’s cause.
“Kaepernick is this generation’s Ali,” Edwards said. “Ali created a conversation. The conversation was going on at lower frequencies, but when the world champion steps forward and says, ‘No Viet Cong ever called me a nigger, and we have issues we need to deal with here, not over there in a war that makes no sense,’ it moved the discussion to another level. The same thing with Kaepernick. He sparked a national conversation about race.”
And that’s a valuable piece of history. — Jarrett Bell is an NFL columnist for USA Today Sports and a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee.