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Kenny Moore
August 12, 1991
The lives of the U.S. Olympians who protested racism in 1968 were changed forever
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August 12, 1991

The Eye Of The Storm

The lives of the U.S. Olympians who protested racism in 1968 were changed forever

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Carlos kept his three children together. When the L.A. Olympic Organizing Committee got going under Peter Ueberroth, Carlos was hired as a community coordinator to work with local minority-group residents. He expected to receive a permanent position from Mayor Tom Bradley or Ueberroth after the Games. He didn't get one. "It was depressing," says Carlos. "I staggered around some more."

In December 1986, Carlos was arrested for cocaine possession. (He was found guilty, but after he attended a drug program the conviction was expunged from his record.) Two years earlier, he had married Charlene Norwood. "My wife and my life," he says now. In 1988, they moved to Palm Springs, Calif., where Carlos coached the sprinters at Palm Desert High School. In 1990 he was named boys' track and field coach at Palm Springs High.

Carlos is now the grandfather of three. He seeks a quiet life. "Of course, I'm going to be a whipping post the rest of my days," he says. "The '68 Olympics are alive. The juice, the fire of '68, that scared a lot of people. All of us were such strong personalities, and that scared people. It scared government and business, everybody. It still scares them."

But Carlos is tired. "It's ridiculous to feel you can fight the dragon for so long," he says, "and not be scarred. I just want to get away from it with my wife and kids. I've said enough and done enough. And it's not like we've made progress."

Over the last two decades, the greater social gains seem to have been made not by black Americans but by women. Indeed, the black male athletes' failure to include their sisters in the Olympic Project for Human Rights now seems curiously inhumane.

"It appalled me," says Tyus, "that the men simply took us for granted. They assumed we had no minds of our own and that we'd do whatever we were told."

Smith struggles with the truth of that. "They should have been involved," he says. "It just wasn't done, but it was not meant to be denigrating. So many things were happening, and there was so little time. It was an inadvertent oversight."

It may have been more than that. The heart of the black male athlete's mission was seen by many as affirming black manhood. A black man recoiled when whites called him "boy," because that echoed centuries of far worse emasculation. The topic is a leitmotiv in Vince Matthews's book, My Race Be Won. "It was important," he wrote, "to reassert the basic masculinity of black men and force the controlling white forces in the United States to stop taking the black man's services for granted."

Yet athletic expression is not strictly masculine. Black female athletes such as Tyus and 1968 800-meter champion Madeline Manning must have confused the issue for the men. "We fought for all blacks, for black women and black babies," Smith says now, "not just men." But in the fighting, they stayed aloof.

The fact is that in 1968, America was far from recognizing the validity of women's sports in any color. It would take the Title IX guarantees of funding for women's programs and the great boom in women's participation of the late 1970s and the 1980s to fully establish that it is immoral to relate athletic progress to gender. Ours is a journey of stages.

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