History Repeats Itself: The Protest That Began Over Four Decades Ago
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San Francisco 49ers’ backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick has recently sparked a protest among NFL players after refusing to stand for the national anthem, stating that he wasn’t “going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” During preseason games as well as the season opener, Kaepernick has knelt on the sidelines. Teammate Eric Reid chose to follow suit in kneeling beside Kaepernick in the season opener and some Miami Dolphins players decided to take a knee during their opener as well. However, players from the LA Rams, New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs decided to take a different approach, standing while raising gloved fists, the same pose 200-meter gold medalist Tommie Smith and bronze medalist John Carlos enacted during the medal ceremony at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Smith and Carlos’ gestures occurred during the American national anthem as well, unknowingly leading the way for many protests to come.
Successful entrepreneur and businessman Daymond John suggests, “You will never create anything new. There’ll only be a new delivery and a new market.” The context of this quote is centered around the business industry; however, the same applies for any other subject matter, including the NFL players’ protests. The sports in which the protests have occurred and the stage of the protests may differ, but the reason for the protests and their intended messages are the same – to stand against racial inequality and injustices against people of color. So in a sense, history repeats itself, as well as foreshadows the future.
In a documentary on the 1968 Mexico City games produced for HBO, Tommie Smith says, “We were just human beings who saw the need to bring attention to the inequality in our country… I don’t like the idea of people looking at it as a negative. There was nothing but a raised fist in the air and a bowed head – acknowledging the American flag – not symbolizing a hatred for it.”
According to Time magazine, the Australian, 200-meter silver medalist, Peter Norman, stood with Smith and Carlos wearing an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge to show his support during the medal ceremony. Smith and Carlos were pallbearers at Norman’s funeral in 2006.
In an interview last month with National Public Radio’s Renee Montagne, John Carlos says, “If you’re black and you’re an athlete, you have an opportunity to be a voice for the voiceless. It’s your responsibility to realize that although you made it in this bubble, so to speak, 99.9 percent of the people from your environment has not made it in that bubble. If I stood on 125th street in front of the Apollo and said certain things, I don’t think I would reach as many people as I would have reached going to Mexico City to speak about the issues.”
A little over a week after Carlos’ interview with NPR’s Montagne, Kaepernick began his protest of the American flag, kneeling during the national anthem, followed by fellow NFL players doing the same or raising their gloved fist. During the interview, Montagne asks Carlos could he imagine any of today’s athletes raising a fist in protest in the way that he did; Carlos responds by saying people should do their own thing, not his thing.
Well, could it be that Kaepernick heard Carlos’ interview with NPR and was inspired to use his NFL platform to have a voice? Did other NFL players do their research on what took place at the 1968 Olympic medal ceremony as well?
Forty-eight years later, it seems that Kaepernick and company are finishing what Smith, Carlos and Norman started. Although the aforementioned athletes paved the way for today’s protests, that paving came with a cost that athletes today likely won’t have to face. Kaepernick has received plenty of backlash since he was the first to reignite a fire that was started over four decades ago. However, he’s received a lot of support and praises.
Eventhough Smith and Carlos received some support for their courage, the National Track and Field Hall of Famers received a lot more consequences. Not only were they suspended from the U.S. team, they received death threats as well. At that time, the clenched fists were interpreted by many people as a salute to black power. However, in the NPR interview, Carlos suggests the media framed his and Smith’s actions in a way that portrayed them as black militants who wanted to burn down America, which was nonsense. Consequently, over the next decade after the protest, Carlos’ family received backlash, he lost friends and his wife committed suicide after their marriage hit rock bottom.
“We were making a humanitarian statement. If you have to cross the line of politicism, then so be it. We were there making concerns about people that was less fortunate in this society in which we live,” says Carlos. “People put emphasis on that we were the ones that brought politics to the Olympic Games; but I notice every time I see an athlete win, regardless of what nation it is, the first thing they do is throw a flag down to the kid. Is that not politics?”
There’s a blurred line between human rights and politics that’s existed for a long time and will probably exist for many years to come. Nevertheless, it’s important to understand that Carlos and Smith endured a lot of scrutiny in the past for NFL players to protest right now without the fear of detrimental consequences. So those who are thankful for the actions of Kaepernick and company should be thankful for the actions of Smith, Carlos and Norman dating back to nearly 50 years ago. Whether people agree with the protests or not, one thing that’s certain is they won’t be the last, because history repeats itself and foreshadows what’s still to come.
Cosgrove, Ben. (2014, September 27). The Black Power Salute That Rocked the 1968 Olympics. Time Magazine.
John, Daymond. (January 2016). The Power of Broke. Crown Business.
McKirdy, Euan. (2016, September 13). Colin Kaepernick continues kneeling protest ahead of 49ers opener. CNN.
Montagne, Renee. (2016, August 18). ’68 Olympian: If You’re Famous and You’re Black, You Have To Be An Activist. National Public Radio.