At the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, USA gold and bronze medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos famously took to the medal stand and thrust their fists in the air in a salute of black power and unity. Smith wore a black scarf around his neck to represent black pride and black socks with no shoes, symbolizing black poverty, and Carlos wore beads in memory of lynching victims.
With the United States embroiled in violent protests over the Vietnam War, the civil rights movements, the beating of protesters by Chicago police at the Democratic National Convention and freshly mourning the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, the two athletes were suspended from the U.S. team. But at a press conference immediately following the medal ceremony Smith said: “If I win I am an American, not a black American. But if I did something bad then they would say ‘a Negro.’ We are black and we are proud of being black. Black America will understand what we did tonight.”
Almost 50 years later, America is still reckoning with its racist past, with the Black Lives Matter movement, which celebrates its third birthday this month, indefatigably shining a light on the same sort of economic and equity disparities, police profiling and institutional racism that Smith and Carlos raised their fists against.
“It’s an amazing time right now. In historical perspective, it’s only the second era we’ve seen where athletes are stepping up to speak up and be a part of social movements,” said Doug Hartmann, a University of Minnesota professor and sociologist and the author of “Race, Culture, and the Revolt of the Black Athlete: The 1968 Olympic Protests and Their Aftermath” and “Midnight Basketball: Race, Sports, and Neoliberal Social Policy.”
“Sixty-eight was the first time in our country when black athletes saw a need to speak out, and we’re seeing the fruits of that in today’s athletes,” Hartmann continued. “The summer of 1968, there had been a growing consciousness leading up to the Olympic games and talk of boycotting the games, and Smith and Carlos were inspired by Dr. King, so their act wasn’t individual. They were college athletes who were being educated about societal injustices, and they knew they were not being treated well and that they were being exploited, and that’s still a lot of what’s going on with black college athletes today.
“But Smith and Carlos were hated when they returned to America. They were considered enemies of the state, and even though they were respected by black America and the Black Panthers and some other radical groups, I don’t think they really changed people’s minds or created policies. And I think that has not changed today.”
In 2016, some of the most prominent athletes filling Smith and Carlos’s shoes work in Minnesota. On the night of July 9, in the wake of the Philando Castile and Alton Sterling killings, the Minnesota Lynx took to the court wearing black T-shirts that read on the front, “Change starts with us—Justice & Accountability.” On the back were the names of Castile and Sterling and a small Dallas police star in honor of the police officers murdered in Texas.
Before the game, team captains Maya Moore, Rebekkah Brunson, Lindsay Whalen and Seimone Augustus held a press conference. Brunson said, “In the wake of the tragedies that have continued to plague our society, we have decided it’s important to take a stand and raise our voices. Racial profiling is a problem. Senseless violence is a problem. The divide is way too big between our communities and those who have vowed to protect us.
“Racism and unjust phobic fear and disregard of black females is very real. I’m scared for my brothers and sisters, my nieces and nephews, my future son or daughter. I’m scared I can’t teach them to stand up for themselves, to be young, proud, strong people.”
The show of solidarity with Black Lives Matter was, and continues to be, the most courageous act of social protest ever staged by a group of Minnesota athletes — which, in an arena of mostly say-nothing jocks and the status quo’s “shut up and play ball” (or worse) mindset, makes it all the easier to passionately support these thoughtful take-no-guff heroines.
Part of why we follow athletes is for their courage and competitive spirit, which has been on full display with the Lynx this summer, with the added bonus of knowing they’re gutty off court as well. Not only are they a great team (6-0 during the T-shirt “controversy”), they’re unified by actually standing for something and, unlike so many pro athletes, are obviously connected to their community as they go for the gold in Rio and a fourth WNBA championship.
A team for the ages, in other words.
A team worth rooting for.
“I was really proud and impressed by the Lynx, because this was embraced by the whole team and coaching staff, and they have this cross-racial coalition and that’s pretty unique,” said Hartmann. “And it’s not accidental that it’s a women’s group that did that, because women athletes have been more aware about injustices around them, and it’s reflective of how they’re treated as second-class citizens in this masculine arena, so there’s a certain level of higher awareness and consciousness.
“As a team, the Lynx is a coalition of white and black players and a white coach, and that will be one of the things that will give this movement staying power: if white athletes step forward and support black athletes. The Missouri football team supporting the black athletes as a whole was significant, and the white coaching staff and players for the Lynx, too. That’s new, and in general for Black Lives Matter, it has to have support from the white majority to go forward.”
Ironically enough, as much of the Twin Cities media were sucking off the town’s new corporate teat, U.S. Bank Stadium, the Lynx were making history across town by doing what has become one of the main tenets of the BLM movement: speaking truth to power.
Given what Hartmann characterizes as “the tight rein of the Olympics,” there’s no telling if Moore, Augustus, Whalen, and fellow Lynx Olympian Sylvia Fowles will make like their ’68 black power brethren in Rio next month, along with Olympic teammates Tamika Catchings (Indiana Fever), Brittney Griner, Diana Taurasi (Phoenix Mercury), and Tina Charles (New York Liberty), who were fined by the WNBA for wearing similar black protest warm-up shirts. (After public outrage, the fines were rescinded).
But one thing is certain: With the WNBA on break for the Olympics, the next Black Lives Matter-themed night is scheduled for August 28 at Target Center for the Lynx-Seattle game. Hartmann, for one, welcomes the public displays of protest staged by the WNBA players and some of their NBA counterparts, and he predicts more to come.
“It’s more likely that there will be protests on college campuses this fall,” he said. “I could see more of the statements and gestures happening like they’ve been at the University Of Minnesota, and I think with the events of this summer it’s only heated things up more. There’s a lot of foment and unrest looking for a way to connect and a lot of people wanting to make their views public and make change. It will be interesting to see if student-athletes are part of it.”
Jim Walsh lives and grew up in South Minneapolis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org