Standing On the Shoulder of Giants: 50th Anniversary of an Iconic Protest

Photo Credit: Thomas Hawk, Flickr

Over the past few days, the news has been awash with excellent articles detailing October 16, 2018’s noteworthy place in sports, political, and protest lore–the 50th anniversary of Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ decision to protest racial injustice in these United States by raising a black gloved fist during the national anthem.  Such a tribute is fitting in and of itself; after all, it is probably the most iconic sports protest in United States history, and certainly in Olympics History.  A case may be made that nothing as extraordinary, in terms of the high profile of the country involved, as well as the resonance decades later, has happened in Olympic sports since.

Kaepernick’s decision to remain seated during the national anthem and the furor it has sparked over the two years since its inception both bolsters Carlos’s and Smith’s protest, and is bolstered by it.  Kaepernick is not the only individual since the 1968 to demonstrate during the anthem in protest of racial injustice.  Not only was this core manner of protest popular during the 1960s, various individuals, famous and unknown, refused to stand for the national anthem in protest of racism; but what has occurred since 2016 is unique in its breadth and depth.  First, the sheer volume of individuals involved in protests during the anthem is on another level.  Athletes from every level, entire teams, students, everyday people, social groups, politicians, etc have engaged in thousands of protests.  Second, protests during the national anthem as gripped the headlines; the attention of two Presidents of the United States, and the ire of the current POTUS; been a factor of sundry political races at the local, state, and federal levels.  To say nothing of its impact in pop culture, music, etc.

This movement of protest during the anthem is extremely significant historically, and the actions of Carlos and Smith 50 years ago is ever present in its discussion.  Like these two early giants, Kaepernick has suffered for his decision to lay bare before the world the hypocrisy symbolized by the national anthem and the American flag.  Carlos and Smith were not only exiled from the Olympics as Kaepernick currently is from the National Football League, they also suffered immensely when they returned home to the United States.  The familiar acts of cowardice that whites routinely exhibit in the face of Black courage and refusal to accept racism quietly manifested for all three men, and most any other Black person who has refused to stand or otherwise demonstrated during the national anthem.  Insults. Death threats.  Threats of other violence. Ostracization and attempts to destroy one’s means of livelihood.  Intimidation.  Abuse of authority.  The same playbook.

Despite dwindling numbers of demonstrations during the anthem in the NFL, news is being made daily on the subject both regarding its depth and breadth. There is always a new crop of students, athletes, or everyday people who take up the mantle and decide to execute this, one of the most powerful of protest actions; not necessarily because it will bring forth the end of systemic racism.  It will not. But because while white Americans desire to maintain their cognitive dissonance regarding the rot of systemic racism that nullifies the values for which this country purportedly stands, our bold decision to expose the hypocrisy every time the Star Spangled Banner is played will be a constant reminder that we will not assuage anyone’s conscious and will not allow our centuries long and counting terrorism to go unmentioned. We see you.