When two young Olympians raised their black-gloved hands from the victor’s podium in Mexico City last fall, they may have symbolized more than they or we recognized. The varied reactions, official discipline, and their own belated efforts at explanation suggest that this is so.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos had finished first and third in the two hundred meter event. At the time appointed for them to receive recognition, the champions walked forward wearing black socks, no shoes, and black gloves—one each—on opposite hands. When the martial tune of the American anthem was struck, they bowed their heads away from the colors and extended clenched fists in racial salute.

Reaction was immediate—a mixture of sympathy and hostility and, more pronounced, a sense of impropriety. Everett Barnes appeared to speak for the United States Olympic Committee when he stated: “I am embarrassed; all of us are embarrassed. It makes our country look like the devil.” However, no action beyond the reprimand was planned: “The committee does not believe the behavior of two members of the U.S. team warrants any formal action at this time since such behavior is viewed an isolated incident.”

But within twenty-four hours, under a threat that the entire American team might be disqualified if stronger action were not taken, Smith and Carlos were dismissed. Their offense was described as violation of the spirit of the Olympian games, a reduction of world community to partisan politics.

Smith later explained their action as symbolic of black power. The right and left gloves, he said, are a sign of fellowship within the black community.

He was right in calling this a symbolic act, one that does not directly affect the situation it addresses. That is, it was not ...

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