by Mark Pan
As people across the country stand up and alongside the Black community, a historical perspective can help frame the ongoing issue of racial injustice in America.
Most Americans alive today were not born yet when, at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, Tommie Smith and John Carlos stood on the medal podium and raised their black-gloved fists just before the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ began to play. Many, though, can identify the iconic image and at least generally articulate what it stands for.
Over 50 years later, it’s still painfully relevant.
The same conditions that compelled Smith and Carlos to take their stand have erupted again as protestors rally across America and around the world. Their voices reflect a Nation scarred by centuries of racism, intolerance, and injustice.
The world now knows George Floyd's name, along with Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, who are among the countless victims of senseless and lethal violence against African Americans.
Floyd's murder, in particular, was so visceral and inhumane that it ripped open our Country's deepest wounds. His death has brought a day of reckoning and, finally, we are all feeling the pain.
We now proudly assert that Black Lives Matter saddened that we have to, but clear that it’s our responsibility to stand alongside and support this community. History has been particularly cruel to Black people, and it's our time to summon the courage to speak out, amplify voices, and take action. To do so, we need to start by facing the brutal truth:
Systematic bias and racism are woven into the very fabric of America.
Unfortunately, this statement ignites debate, just as did Smith and Carlos’ protest in 1968. They were vilified and ostracized at the time, suspended by the US Olympic Committee, and sent home to criticism and death threats. History has since judged them as civil rights heroes, and society has come to honor their legacy, but the lesson of tolerance has still not been learned as those in positions of power continue to condemn Smith and Carlos’ present-day contemporaries.
This hypocrisy bears an intense light on our inability to properly evolve on the issue of race. Collectively, we have failed to develop a learned and empathetic perspective that is informed beyond our conscious and unconscious biases. It’s this perspective that is central to each of us playing an individual role in solving the wider systemic issues that perpetuate racism in America.
On April 4th, 1968 Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and at the time of his murder, he was widely disliked by most Americans. While this has been well reported over the years, many people are shocked given how universally revered he has become. Dr. King is held in such high esteem that we can’t fathom how so many people fell on the wrong side of history. This is because it’s easy to look back and place ourselves on the right side of the moral argument now that it’s in the comfortable majority. In doing this, we also avoid having the needed, but difficult and uncomfortable, conversations about today’s status quo.
History tends to judge us correctly, yet we continue to get this wrong.
Not everyone does, however. Some have the moral fortitude and courage to ignore societal power structures that are designed to maintain a discriminating doctrine of racial order. These individuals have an empathetic awareness that affords them an immediate perspective that will take the masses years to form, but it shouldn’t require extreme acts of human bravery and personal sacrifice to carry it out.
Winning in world record time, Smith was not going to be denied the gold medal in the 200-meter final that day. Carlos finished third, bested by Australian Peter Norman, who earned the silver medal by setting an Oceanic record that still stands today.
Norman is a lesser-known figure in the iconic protest, but every bit as relevant and integral to the story. He stood in solidarity with Smith and Carlos by joining them in wearing an Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) patch on the podium. OPHR was organized to use the Olympics as a platform for broader change.
After the ceremony Norman said to reporters, "I believe that every man is born equal should be treated that way." For his 'controversial' actions, Norman was reprimanded by the Australian Olympic Committee and returned to his home country a pariah.
Like Smith and Carlos, Norman was later celebrated as history once again prevailed. Regardless, he understood at the time that the responsibility for liberating marginalized and oppressed people does not sit solely with those marginalized and oppressed.
In fact, the accountability to eradicate systematic bias sits with two groups: the people in power who complicity perpetuate the system, and those who benefit from it.
Together, Smith, Carlos, and Norman stood up to hold the world's establishments accountable. Norman, in his role, was also being accountable.
History has given us a roadmap, and now it's up to us to decide to use it. We often point to the ‘younger generation’ and believe our children will fix our problems, however, this fallacy dates back to at least 1861 when Civil War broke out, and here we are still waiting.
Our Country is beautiful, and while we honor the past, progress is one of America's most defining characteristics. Today, we're being challenged to answer a new call and say that when it comes to the systems of justice, equality, and equity; progress is no longer enough.
Unencumbered by the biases that are inherent to these systems, we must reserve judgment, listen with empathy, and nurture an open perspective. Through these very personal and individual behaviors, we can reform the unjust infrastructures that guarantee basic human rights for some, but not all.
These are not new concepts, but history tells us that particularly as they relate to the plight of African Americans, we see them as someone else’s responsibility. We’d rather wait it out and participate from a more comfortable position of hindsight or distance from the real problem.
Inequality, however, is all our problem to solve and no one is free of responsibility. Imagine if not one, but all generations alive today, in unity, decided that enough is enough.
Many would say this is impossible.
The 1968 Summer Olympics are also known for one of the greatest athletic feats in Olympic history. In an event measured by eighths of an inch, Bob Beamon broke the world long jump record by a staggering 22 inches. Prior to Beamon’s jump, the world record had been broken thirteen times since 1901 with an average increase of only 2 ½ inches each time. In a single moment, with a leap spanning 29 feet 2 ½ inches, Beamon did the impossible. Up to that point, no one had yet broken the 28-foot barrier, so 29 feet was wildly unimaginable. While his world record was eventually broken 23 years later, the Olympic record stands today as a symbol of human possibility.
Amid the sadness and anger, this day of reckoning is also bringing unity and beauty to the human race. Perhaps like never before, there is widespread demand for permanent and systematic change. Beyond the shocking images of blatant racism, the less obvious undercurrents of society are finally coming in to focus for all to see. The visceral emotions are stripping away apathy and overriding discomfort as more allies of the Black community and fight against injustice rise up together.
This is our moment, and it’s clear who will be on the right side of history.
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