Saturday, August 27, 2016

There's a New Man in the Fight

Welcome, Colin Kaepernick, to the real home of the brave.

It’s not an easy place to walk, but those who walk there walk tall.  Tommie Smith walked there.  And John Carlos.  Peter Norman.  Others, too.

You hadn’t even been born yet when those three — Smith, Carlos and Norman — walked the walk.  It was 1968.  The Olympic Games.  Mexico City.

Smith was, in a manner of speaking, the Usain Bolt of his times, arguably the fastest man on earth.  He had just won the 200 meter sprint in world record time.  Norman placed second; Carlos, third.  They mounted the podium to receive their medals.  The national anthem of the United States, as is the tradition, was played for the presentation of the gold to Smith.  He and Carlos were without shoes, wearing black socks.  They raised their black-gloved fists in what was known back then as the black power salute.  They did it to call attention to segregation and racism in the United States, and to stand in silent protest against it.

Norman, a white man, represented Australia in that Olympiad.  Back home, he had opposed his country’s “white Australia policies,” which restricted non-white immigration and persecuted the its black aboriginal population. He knew that Smith and Carlos had decided to make a silent statement if they got to the podium; they would wear black gloves.  Norman wanted to make a statement of his own on that podium.  He approached Paul Hoffman, a U.S. Olympic rower, and asked to borrow his badge for the “Olympic Project for Human Rights.”  Wearing it would be his statement of solidarity with Smith and Carlos.

Avery Brundage, the Nazi-loving head of the American Olympic committee, ordered that Smith and Carlos be suspended and banned from the Olympic Village.  They were vilified in the media.

Norman, too,  paid a heavy price for his role.  “As soon as he got home he was hated,” his nephew, Matthew Norman, said.  Although he qualified in both the 100 meters and the 200 meters, Norman was not invited to represent Australia in the 1972 Olympic games.

Peter Norman died of a heart attack in 2006.  Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave eulogies at his funeral and served as pall bearers. 

Smith and Carlos had brief professional football careers.  Both later became educators and coaches.  In 2008 they shared the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage for their action forty years earlier in Mexico City.

When you refused to stand for the national anthem before a football game the other night, Colin Kaepernick, you stood instead beside Tommie Smith, John Carlos and Peter Norman. "I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color," you said. "To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder."

As Carlos told an Occupy Wall Street gathering on Oct. 10, 2011, “There’s a fight still to be won.”

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