The Black Athlete as Laborer and Civil Rights Advocate

By Margaret Borgos (’22)

Sports and athletic competitions are inextricably connected to political landscapes. The 1968 Mexico City Olympics were no exception. Black athletes fought for their labor and civil rights both inside and outside of sport at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. An iconic photo immortalized American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos. They are pictured standing on the Olympic podium, each with one gloved fist peacefully yet defiantly raised, and with their heads cast downward during the playing of the United States’ national anthem. In response to their protest, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) dismissed Smith and Carlos, giving them 48 hours to leave the games. The iconic photo of Smith and Carlos, in addition to newspaper coverage of their “resistance to unfair treatment,” demonstrates how these Black athletes utilized their platform to push for both labor rights and civil rights. The speed at which Smith and Carlos were dismissed from the games resembles how meatpacking workers were dismissed from their jobs in Cheri Register’s memoir Packinghouse Daughter. The seemingly insignificant connection is crucial for understanding the ways in which those in power have historically justified rapidly removing workers, athletes, and laborers from their jobs. The language used to describe the packinghouse workers’ dismissals because of their own strikes parallels the language used by the IOC to dismiss Smith and Carlos. Media coverage featuring Tommie Smith and John Carlos attempted to present their protest objectively and neutrally. The lack of commentary about their dismissal is shocking given the surrounding context of the social upheaval of the 1960s. Amid the fights for labor and civil rights, reporters were unwilling to explicitly support or condemn Smith and Carlos. 

 The protest at the Mexico City Olympics exemplifies the broader labor issues in the world of amateur and professional sports. Through their raised fists, Smith and Carlos  challenged the world to consider Black American athletes’ roles as representatives of the United States. In a country where “all men are created equal,” was it fair for Black Americans to be denied social, political, and economic justice while simultaneously winning Olympic medals for the United States? Black athletes were underrepresented and underpaid in amateur and professional sporting organizations while also being denied leadership roles, starkly demonstrating the effects of institutionalized and systemic racism. At the same time, Black athletes contributed to the development and prosperity of multimillion-dollar sporting industries. Black athletes received little to no benefits for their efforts in representing the United States. 

The language and circumstances involved in the dismissal of Smith and Carlos parallel the dismissals of the packinghouse workers. Diction such as “ousted,” “dropped,” “suspended,” “dismissed,” “banished,” and “expelled” were used in the media coverage of the Olympic games to describe Smith’s and Carlos’ dismissal. These were the verbs used across five articles—three from the New York Times and two from the Washington Post—to describe the consequences Smith and Carlos faced for their actions (6,9). The language and circumstances bear resemblance to the ways in which Cheri Register discussed the meat packinghouse workers at the beginning of their strike for justice in her memoir. Register shares her experience of the meat packinghouse strikes as a young girl to provide commentary on one aspect of the American labor movement. She describes how “…[the worker] told the foreman he was going home. The foreman told him ok, but don’t come back tomorrow then. He was suspended right then and there” (3). The same word “suspended,” was used to articulate how the worker was kicked out or banished from their job for daring to question the conditions under which the laborers were forced to work. Furthermore, a figure with authority immediately had the power to dismiss a worker. There were no protections for laborers who disagreed with the system. Smith and Carlos were “suspended” from the games in a similar fashion to how the worker was fired from the packinghouse. Echoes of resentment about working conditions in the packinghouse paralleled those felt by athletes during the Olympic games. You were either in the system and followed the rules, or you were out and on your own. Smith and Carlos faced another barrier where they were always “out” of the system because of their Black identities. The system “tolerated them;” that is until Smith and Carlos decided enough was enough and protested the system on an international stage.

Smith and Carlos eventually released their own statements in the Times in response to their dismissal. Smith responded to questions by stating “we’re proud to be Black. White America will only give us credit for an Olympic victory. They’ll say I’m an American, but if I did something bad, they’d say a Negro” (8). Carlos responded by stating “we feel that white people think we’re just animals to do a job…If we do a good job, they’ll throw us some peanuts or pat us on the back and say ‘Good boy’” (8). Both athletes felt they were only respected for their “good”’ work, their “admirable” accomplishments, and their “commendable” contributions to the United States Olympic team. However, in the eyes of white America, one misstep would result in the Black body being criminalized and criticized. There was a fine line between earning praise and earning condemnation. Furthermore, Carlos offered the idea that the Black body was seen as animal-like, as less than human. This stems from racism inherent in the institutions of the United States and from the legacy of slavery where Black bodies were dehumanized and tortured. Smith and Carlos powerfully articulate how they were “patted on the back” before their protest on the podium, after which they were immediately condemned for their actions. Both athletes integrate their perspectives on their labor, their athletic performance, and their completion of their job into their statements. In doing so, they clearly share with their readers how they won medals for a country which refused to offer them equality and justice. 

The United States Olympic Committee and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) wanted to mitigate any embarrassment. These committees felt obligated to protect the “Olympic ideal and Olympic principles” (6,9). The IOC did not want politics interfering with sport. However, authors such as Toby Rider argue that:

 “ever since the modern Olympic Movement was formed more than a century ago, the games of each Olympiad have provided a powerful and compelling conduit to shape public opinion. From the very start, sporting patriots and the media have equated the performance of athletes at the Olympics with the strength and prestige of the nations they represent” (4). 

In other words, Rider argues the Olympics are fundamentally connected to their audience; the public. Furthermore, the performances of athletes are connected to the strength of the nation they represent. An athlete winning gold symbolizes that their nation is superior to other nations. Thus, the implications of Smith’s and Carlos’s protest is that they were impacting public opinion about the question of racial justice and painted the United States as incapable of handling discontent in regards to the racism inherent in their institutional systems. The IOC was furious with the actions of the athletes, while simultaneously “members of the United States committee, who were divided on the question of whether action should be taken, emphasized that the dismissals were by edict of the international unit” (6). The United States committee did not want to face further “embarassment” and therefore indicated that the IOC was the main decision maker in the dismissal of Smith and Carlos. Tensions escalated when the IOC threatened to “bar the entire United States team from further participation” (6). Sheehan suggests that if the United States refused to dismiss individual athletes then the entire team would be dismissed by the IOC. The coverage further suggests that the United States committee wanted to avoid blame and repercussions at home for the dismissals. It was better for them to send home two athletes than the whole team. It is important to note that the President of the IOC at this time was Avery Brundage, a highly controversial figure, and an American (5). Undoubtedly, as an American and the President of the IOC, Brundage had enormous power in making the decision to send Smith and Carlos home as American athletes. These events echo Register’s account of the packinghouse strikes. The “only way to keep someone’s job safe was for everybody else to risk theirs, too” (3). The other athletes at the Mexico City Olympics wanted to keep their jobs safe and the United States wanted to avoid embarrassment. At this point in the movement for labor and civil rights, not every athlete or committee member was willing to risk their job. As a result, Smith and Carlos lost theirs. 

American pole vaulter Bob Seagran vocally disapproved of Smith and Carlos’ protest. After winning gold in the pole vault he was interviewed and commented that “it was kind of cheap for them…if it wasn’t for the United States they wouldn’t have been there. I don’t think it was very proper. If they don’t like the United States, they can always leave” (7). I argue similar rhetoric continues to be used today in order to silence marginalized voices. By including Seagren’s perspective on the protest, the journalist either was offering an athlete’s opinion, or looking to expose Seagren’s racist logic. Either way, the rhetoric demonstrates how Seagren believed the athletes should be indebted to the United States and were ungrateful for not respecting the national anthem. Furthermore, news sources addressed how Douglas Roby, the President of the United States Olympic committee, believed that further protests “if continued and been allowed to escalate, might have destroyed the Olympic movement” (9). The Olympic movement in the simplest of terms refers to the revival, spurred by Pierre de Coubertin, of the ancient Olympic games originating in Athens, Greece (5). The Olympics were revived in France to encourage the growth of French male youth through participation in sport and then grew into an international competition (5). Smith’s and Carlos’ actions created fear about the loss of the Olympic movement because Smith and Carlos directly introduced politics, labor rights, and civil rights into the sporting landscape. Rather than a space for fostering youth, the Olympic stage had suddenly become a platform for poltical protest. These fears arguably motivated the desire to send Smith and Carlos home. However, other athletes including Lee Evans, Larry James, Ron Freeman, and Bob Beamon, as well as the women’s 400m relay team composed of Margaret Bailes, Barbara Ferrell, Mildrette Netter, and Wyomia Tyrus, supported Smith and Carlos by wearing black berets, black socks, and dedicating their wins to the two athletes while accepting their medals, speaking at news conferences, and Evans even refused to shake the hand of a United States Olympic official (6). These athlete’s intentions and words were clear in their voicing of support of Smith and Carlos, but not hostile enough to warrant response. The newspaper evidence tells a story where Smith and Carlos were the targets of ridicule and contempt driven by racism, while also serving as icons and role models in the fight for civil rights and the Black power movement. 

The Mexico City Olympics happened after the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and after the 1963 March on Washington. The passing of the Civil Rights Act and the March on Washington are important for this discussion because they are two movements designed to provide Black bodies and laboring bodies with equality and justice. They also symbolize the importance of collective action for achieving change. The March on Washington “mobilized a quarter of a million people in 1963 behind demands for equal access to jobs, public accommodations, and voting rights” (2). Smith and Carlos were not standing alone in their fight for justice. When Walter Reuther, a critical figure in the United States labor movements, spoke at the March on Washington, he argued that “the job question is crucial; because we will not solve education or housing or public accommodations as long as millions of American Negroes are treated as second-class economic citizens and denied jobs” (2). Reuther acknowledges five years before the Mexico Olympics the progress and change required in order to change labor systems in the United States. The change Reuther suggested was fundamentally linked to achieving racial equaliy. 

Roughly one year after the Mexico City Olympics, Harry Edwards, a key spokesperson for the Black power movement, wrote his book, The Revolt of the Black Athlete. Edwards highlighted key reasons why the business of sport and the labor of Black athletes must be part of the conversation in achieving justice. He argues that “sports in America is big business, and has a significant social, economic, and political impact on both the national and international levels” (1). However, Black bodies have not reaped the benefits of the sporting business. The refusal of corporations to hire Black workers in leadership positions creates an imbalance resulting in a system where “blacks and whites of similar abilities are paid vastly differing salaries. Whites, in a word, make more on the average than blacks” (1). The discrepancies in Black representation and power in the 1960s due to unequal pay  relate to Reuther’s earlier calls for economic justice for all people in order to solve the labor problems in America. Edward’s writing illuminates that corporations remained racist and distrustful of Black bodies in particular job positions five years after the Civil Rights Act. The Olympics represented an international media platform. The news coverage demonstrates how both the United States and the IOC felt threatened by the protest demanding racial equality in their unforgiving rhetoric and calls for the athletes’ dismissal. A sporting stage, a medal podium, was used to send a political message. It is likely the United States and the IOC felt threatened by the protest demanding racial equality because they were keenly aware of the lack of economic, social, and political justice for Black bodies of people in the United States.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) refused to support Black athletes to the extent they deserved because of the color of their skin. Therefore, Harry Edwards and his colleagues created a Federation of Black Amateur Athletes. This Federation “arose out of the determination that existing athletic unions, such as the NCAA and the AAU, have demonstrated they lack either the capacity or the desire to protect the interests and guarantee the rights of Black athletes” (1). Edwards’ statement argues the NCAA and the AAU were failing to protect Black athletes. However, the Federation of Black Amateur Athletes would “utilize the political leverage of athletics for the benefit of the masses or Black people in America, and channel back into the Black community some of the millions of dollars that are realized by the sports industry through its dependence on Black athletes” (1). Edwards points to the economic injustices in sport and society that Smith and Carlos hoped to highlight in front of an international stage during their protest. The creation of the Federation of Black Amatuer Athletes is one solution to help funnel capital back into the Black community. Labor unions which sought to support civil rights failed to address issues within sport. The creation of the Federation of Black Amateur Athletes was necessary to address injustices and the rights of athletes in the sporting industry because there was no other labor union to support Black athletes. 

Smith and Carlos used their platform as Black athletes and as laborers to advocate and protest for equality. The iconic photograph of their raised fists signifies their determination to take a stand and share their discontent. In considering the meat packinghouse strikes in which workers asked for better rights and protections, Register engages with questions regarding the rights of laborers and who is in charge of determining those rights; the employers or the laborers (3). These questions are relevant in an Olympic context. In this historical moment, it is clear that the athletes had few if any rights, the IOC held all the power and media sources were scared to publish authentic opinions about the protest and its implications for racial justice in the United States and in the world. The contextualization of sports scholars such as Harry Edwards was required to understand the level of importance in regards to the protest. The media did not cover the implications of Smith’s and Carlos’ actions for social justice initiatives. Furthermore, the media coverage fails to highlight the levels of social, political, and economic injustice faced by Black athletes in unequal working conditions as both laborers and athletes. Edwards highlights how “…in this racist society where the vast majority of American citizens see sports as primarily a recreational activity, not too many sports reporters are willing to risk their personal futures in an effort to bring those instances of injustice based upon race to the attention of the public” (1). If reporters commended the athletes, they could have been seen as in league with Black power. If reporters condemned the athlete’s actions, they would potentially be seen as racist in an era immediately following the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. The absence of reporters taking firm stances on these issues of race highlights the tensions surrounding the discussion of race in the media and in sports. The 1968 Mexico City Olympics protest immortalized an iconic photograph which remains of crucial importance today as sport is a powerful site for advocating not only racial equality, but gender equality. As a cultural practice and institution, sport demands our attention, critique, and study in order to unearth broader social, economic, and political injustices which have ramifications beyond the sporting landscape. 

Maggie Borgos is an English and Gender Studies major, with a minor in History, at the University of Notre Dame. Her article was originally written for Professor Daniel Graff’s History course ‘Labor in America since 1945.’


1. Edwards, Harry. “The Revolt of the Black Athlete: 50th Anniversary Edition,” University of Illinois Press (2017): 33, 25-26, 91, 34.

2. Jones, William P. “The Unknown Origins of the March on Washington: civil rights Politics and the Black Working Class,” Labor: Studies in Working-Class History 7.3 (2010): 34, 46.

3. Register, Cheri. “Packinghouse Daughter: A Memoir,” Perennial (2001): 147, 160, 202.  

4. Rider, Toby C. Cold War Games. Vol. 106. University of Illinois Press, (2016): 6. 

5. Senn, Alfred Erich. Power, Politics, and the Olympic Games. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, (1999): 2.

6. Sheehan, Joseph M. “2 Black Power Advocates Ousted From Olympics,” New York Times, Oct. 19, 1968: 1. 

7. Smith, Carlos Back, Have ‘No Comment,’” The Washington Post, Times Herald, Oct. 22, 1968: D2.

8. Special to the New York Times, “2 Accept Medals Wearing Black Gloves,” New York Times, Oct. 17, 1968: 59, 

9. “Two Negro Athletes Banished,” The Washington Post, Times Herald, Oct. 19, 1968: A1.10. “U.S. Women Dedicate Victory to Smith, Carlos.” New York Times Oct. 10, 1968: 60.

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