Power, Protest & Presidential Profanity: The ‘Race’ for Civil Rights

By Megan Bowler, Gale Ambassador at the University of Liverpool

On 16th October 1968, two black-gloved fists were raised in solidarity on the podium of the Olympic Games in Mexico City as a silent, yet powerfully emotive protest against racial injustice. The American sprinters, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, immediately caught the attention of the world’s media as agitators, acting in defiance to the starred and striped flag and all that it appeared to represent. This transpired just six months after the assassination of Martin Luther King.

On 1st September  2016, the then San Francisco 49er, Colin Kaepernick, knelt alongside team-mate Eric Reid as the national anthem rang throughout the stadium ahead of their fourth preseason match. The stance was again met with irrational, wide-spread condemnation from the NFL and larger, external media channels. This occurred just four months prior to the presidential election of the arguably racist Donald Trump.

50 years on, what’s changed?

Not enough.

Image (left): By Mike Morbeck [CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0] via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Colin_Kaepernick#/media/File:Colin_Kaepernick_-_San_Francisco_vs_Green_Bay_2012.jpg
Image (right): “Black Power protest mars Olympics medal ceremony.” Daily Telegraph, 18 Oct. 1968, p. 22. The Telegraph Historical Archive, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/8Xk7E8#.XA58kK4kJgs.link
Although it may be alarming to draw parallels between the fundamental social, cultural and political issues of today with those of the past, doing so necessitates the need for a new, non-discriminatory and equitable pathway for our future. Gale Primary Sources allow us to gain a unique insight into international history, empowering us with the ability to use historical rationale to guide and reassess the values of the society we live in.

Through the use of a variety of different archives within Gale Primary Sources such as the Sunday Times Digital Archive and The Telegraph Historical Archive, I have been able to identify and draw upon striking similarities between the protests of 1968 and 2016. In order to begin my reading into the mass of primary sources, I turned to the ‘Term Clusters’ tool after a simple search of ‘Tommie Smith and John Carlos’. This tool was greatly valuable to my study as it allowed me to visualise and thematically structure my argument, while ensuring my research was concise and my time was spent efficiently.

Term Clusters search of ‘Tommie Smith and John Carlos.’

To truly understand the extent to which the protests coincide, despite the forty-eight-year intermission, I thought it important to consider the intentions of, and the reactions triggered by, the protests. During an interview with The Daily Telegraph, Smith recalls: “I didn’t do it as a claim to fame. It was a message, a sermon of need. It was a cry for help.”

Philip, Robert. “Gloved fist is raised in defiance.” Daily Telegraph, 11 Oct. 1993, p. 38+. The Telegraph Historical Archive, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/8XW6u8#.XA2QOf7tjZI.link

There is no denying that the American Civil Rights Movement has been and, in many ways, continues to be, a persistent struggle. The continual presence of racial and prejudicial accounts within current new stories, such as those of the recent Charlottesville riots, compels the need for an international civil rights defence. These issues are at the forefront of Kaepernick’s rhetoric as he defends his actions stating that: “I [Kaepernick] am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour”. It is a result of such inequality that we must ask ourselves to judge the extent to which the American constitutional values of ‘freedom’, ‘liberty’ and ‘justice for all’ are still subscribed to today.

When looking through the archives in order to ascertain how the Black Power protest was depicted internationally, the immediate response appears ubiquitous. The Daily Mail dispassionately reported on events, highlighting the team’s decision to suspend Smith and Carlos, giving them only “48 hours to get out of Mexico”.

Blyth, Jeffrey. “‘Behave or Get out’ Threat to U. S. Team.” Daily Mail, 19 Oct. 1968, p. [1]. Daily Mail Historical Archive, 1896-2004, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/8XWAo3#.XA2RYyv7kNU.link
One brave, yet harmless protest fundamentally changed their lives forever. So much so that Carlos’ first wife, Kim, committed suicide as a result of an irrepressible quantity of threats that were posed to her and her family. Similarly, Kaepernick has faced two years of isolation from the NFL, after all teams failed to sign him, and has received relentless opposition, including that from President Trump who commented on the matter: “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners when somebody disrespects our flag to say ‘Get that son-of-a-bitch off the field right now, out, he’s fired’”.

The prejudiced response to such actions undoubtedly necessitates the need for equality as it exemplifies the exact issue Smith, Carlos and Kaepernick were advocating. As the next generation of politicians, writers, teachers or musicians, our time to evoke change is now. We can’t afford to wait another 50 years.

Blog post cover image citation: Teeman, Tim. “Fists of defiance.” Times, 10 July 2008, p. 21[S]. The Times Digital Archivehttp://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/8X8oM6#.XAvM9XHu5Vw.link

About the Author

I am a full-time History student studying at the University of Liverpool, a Gale Student Ambassador and a life-long Netflix devotee. With particular research interests in nuclear culture and the movement of people, groups and civil organisations, I find Gale’s primary source archives immensely valuable to my studies. In my spare time, my main hobbies include spending time with my friends and avoiding the question, “What do you want to do after you graduate?”