NYC Honors Black Power Olympians

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[New York City]

Community activists and well wishers gathered to witness Councilmember Charles Barron and other members of the Council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus award proclamations to four courageous Olympic athletes who, during the 1968 Olympics raised their fists in the defiant Black Power pose.

They were a group of new-thinking athletes who highlighted social and racial injustices in the 1960s and 1970s.

As the proclamations issued by New York’s City Hall elaborated, in 1968, during the Olympic Games in Mexico City, American sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith stunned the world not only with their athletic achievements, but with one of the most memorable acts of civil disobedience.

After Carlos won the bronze medal and Smith won the gold in the 200-meter race, they stood on the awards podium as the American flag rose and the Star-Spangled Banner played. With their eyes closed and heads bowed, Smith raised his right black-glove-covered fist in the air while Carlos raised his left fist to represent unity in Black America.

Together, they formed an arch of unity and power, calling attention to the fact that America's civil rights movement had not gone far enough to eliminate the injustices Black Americans were experiencing.

For their political protest, both men were immediately suspended from their national team and banned from the Olympic Village.

Three days later, Larry James, Lee Evans and Ron Freeman swept the medals. Champion runner James – aka the Mighty Burner – won a silver medal in the 400-meter with his time of 43.97 seconds, smashing the existing world record and placing him second behind teammate and fellow Hall of Famer Evans.

He then added a gold medal by running the third leg on the U.S. 4x400 m relay team, which set a world record of 2:56.16 seconds, a record that remained unbroken until 1992.

At their own medals ceremony, Larry James and his fellow winners wore black socks and black berets and raised their fists in solidarity. When the US National Anthem began, however, they bowed their heads and lowered their fists.

Also in 1968, Vincent Matthews was a member of the incredible American relay team that took the gold medal and set a world record that remained unbroken for twenty-four years. In 1972, he scored gold again in the Olympic final.

When he and his fellow American winner, Wayne Collett, took to the Olympic awards platform, they refused to stand at attention during the national anthem but instead conversed as it played, conveying protest against the treatment of Blacks in the US.

Though they had earned their place on the stage with their hard-won athletic victory, they quickly paid for their protest with boos from the audience, the American relay team's withdrawal from the games, and a ban from all future Olympic competitions.

As Councilmember Barron explained, along with the immediate and harsh penalties levied against them as athletes, Carlos, Smith, James and Matthews also endured widespread outrage with lingering effects for many years of their lives as a result of their courageous stance.

They even received death threats and had difficulty securing employment to provide for their families. Larry James died on his 61st birthday last November at his home in New Jersey. Meanwhile, supporters were moved and inspired by the men’s actions and praised them for their bravery. Their quiet protest helped galvanize the Black Power Movement in America and beyond, and it continues to resonate today in the minds of countless admirers.

As they accepted their proclamations, the men’s modesty was evident. Matthews, a native New Yorker said, "This is an honor I never imagined. I’m humbled and touched, and I thank you very much."

Dr. Carlos said, "As a child of New York, it’s always great to be able to come home to your city and be recognized for something that took people some time to realize you weren’t as bad as they might have thought."

He drew applause as he concluded, "We would hope that people understand that we weren’t concerned merely for the Black race as much as we were concerned for the human race."

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