It lasted for only as long as it took to play the National Anthem, and yet it's lasted for four decades. The image of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, their black-gloved fists raised to the heavens on October 16th, 1968 at the Mexico City Olympics, has somehow grown in power over the last 40 years. Unlike other iconography from the 1960s – Woodstock, Abbie Hoffman, Dick Nixon – the moment isn't musty. It has retains its ability to pack a punch. Go up to Harlem and street merchants still sell t-shirts of the medal stand moment on the corner stands. [...]
There are several reasons I believe this moment has retained its power. The most obvious is that people love a good redemption song. Smith and Carlos were standing up against racism in both sport and society. They wanted South Africa and Rhodesia banned from the games for their apartheid politics. They wanted more black coaches. They wanted International Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage held accountable for his open and virulent racism. They wanted Muhammad Ali – "the warrior saint of the black athlete's revolt" – to have his title restored. And they were reviled for taking their stand and using the Olympic podium to do it. But these "radical" demands have since been proven prescient and Smith and Carlos have made the journey over four decades from receiving countless death threats and being athletic pariahs to having statues unveiled in their honor. Quite an adventure: one that says more about our collective journey than theirs.
But there are other less backward-looking reason the black gloves have retained their power: Smith and Carlos sacrificed privilege and glory for a larger purpose. They left fame and money on the table because of a higher calling. As John Carlos said to me, "A lot of the athletes thought that winning medals would supercede or protect them from racism. But even if you won the medal it ain't going to save your momma. It ain't going to save your sister or children. It might give you 15 minutes of fame, but what about the rest of your life?"
This resonates because we still live in a world where racism is still very real. If hurricane Katrina taught us nothing else, it's that for every Barack Obama and Condi Rice, there remain countless communities where poverty and institutional racism create graveyards of agony.
I could swear I heard somebody say the other day that 1968 doesn't matter any more. Well, it does to those of us who remember it.
Here's the dirty little secret about racism that nobody talks about: it will flourish until people stop teaching their children to hate.