Civil rights and the Vietnam War were related because in each case, American ideals conflicted with reality. Battles over the two issues wrecked college commencements, wedding receptions and company picnics. One side wanted to turn the nation from folly and toward its stated principles (only Congress was constitutionally empowered to declare war, and the Civil Rights Act had been law since 1964). The other side was moved by anticommunism, prejudice or simple my-country-right-or-wrong patriotism. Each side called itself the good Americans, galling the other. The assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert F. Kennedy heightened passions.
Into this caldron came Tommie Smith and John Carlos, attempting a Tet Offensive of race relations. While the U.S. anthem rang out in Mexico City, Smith thought of all the Americans tuning in to experience a moment of vicarious triumph and finding instead their nation shamed. Many would feel betrayed. He thought of his parents and family. "I worried how they would take this, and whether they would be hurt," he says.
Smith told himself he would bear the consequences like a sprinter, whose victories are gained by driving himself into oxygen debt. When the race is over and he is heaving and nauseated, he tells himself he has won, and this is the cost, and it is worth it.
Carlos was a survivor. "John didn't have the education of Tommie," says Lynda Huey, their old friend from San Jose State, "but in ways he was smarter. He could see people's motives. He was more suspicious. He had the better sense of humor. No matter how bad something was, he could make light of it, and nothing was so perfect that he couldn't find a flaw."
Others' loathing seemed a tonic to Carlos. "If they disliked me because they disliked my demanding respect, well, so be it," he said. To Huey, he seemed invulnerable. The one she worried about was Smith.
Smith took momentary sanctuary in his room in the U.S. dorm. His dominant emotion was relief. "I'm glad that's over," he said. He had overcome a cramped thigh, won the race and set a world record, and he had made his protest as planned. Now he could do nothing but await the reaction. He still shuddered a little at the hate-filled faces he had seen in the crowd.
"It was the fist that scared people," he says now. "Bowing wouldn't have gotten the response the fist did. It was a silent gesture. I never threw a rock."
The other black U.S. athletes were surprised but not shocked by the gesture. Smith had promised to do something, and they knew him to be a man of his word. "I didn't think it was that radical at the time," says teammate Larry James.
The U.S. Olympic Committee of course disapproved, yet it was unwilling to make martyrs of Smith and Carlos. But the International Olympic Committee, led by Avery Brundage, threatened to expel the whole U.S. team if the demonstrators weren't severely punished. Abuse of the rule against political activity, the committee said, would cause the Games to degenerate into sociopolitical symposia.
"Recall," says Smith now, "that we chose to demonstrate only during the existing political activity, the anthem."