‘Black Skinned Storm Trooper’ Who Foreshadowed Kaepernick to Be Honored at TIDAL X: Brooklyn

Tommie Smith, left, and John Carlos accept the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage as they were given the award for their black-gloved fist salute at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics onstage at the 2008 ESPY Awards held at NOKIA Theatre L.A. on July 16, 2008 in Los Angeles, California.
Photo: (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Before Colin Kaepernick was born, a couple of black dudes, John Carlos and Tommie Smith, raised a couple of black-gloved fists to the sky as the U.S. national anthem played after they earned a couple of Olympic medals in Mexico City. They were protesting racial injustice and inequality during a decade in which Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X were both murdered, and the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act became law.

Smith will be among those honored by super producer and director Ava DuVernay at TIDAL X: Brooklyn on Oct. 23, for his five-decade-long fight against injustice. The event will be live streamed.


“During the 1968 Summer Olympics, Smith set a record as the first man to complete the 200 meter sprint in less than 20 seconds, earning him a Gold medal. This year marks 50 years after bravely using his place on the podium to stand up for global human rights and injustices around the world,” TIDAL said in a statement announcing the lineup of the event, which will include dozens of musicians, such as Lil’ Kim, Tom Morello and Kodak Black.

All of the ticket proceeds and donations will go to support the criminal justice-reform efforts of nonprofit organizations such as #Cut50, the Equal Justice Initiative, Innocence Project and REFORM.

As far as Smith’s legacy, sportswriter Dave Zirin has kept tabs on what the gesture by Smith and Carlos has meant to sports and beyond. Zirin highlighted the 50th anniversary, which is today, by interviewing Carlos, which you can find here. Carlos says he has been “raising my fist every day for 50 years.”

Like what would happen to Kaepernick nearly a half-century later, Smith and Carlos were immediately shunned and deemed un-American by white people who want their black athletes to just shut up and dribble ... or run.


As Zirin wrote six years ago:

“No one asked why two young, world-class athletes would risk their livelihoods, their reputations, even the safety of themselves and their families in the name of protest. Few were interested in examining why anyone would feel compelled to challenge an International Olympic Committee that coddled apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia, didn’t hire black officials or would be led by an avowed white supremacist and anti-Semite, Avery Brundage. It was easier to dismiss Carlos and Smith and misguided souls and be done with them.”


One of the most egregious statements came from a man many sports fans still follow today, iconic broadcaster Brent Musburger. Zirin dug up a piece Musburger wrote about Smith and Carlos at the time. Remember when Fox News host Laura Ingraham told LeBron James to “shut and dribble” and that naked bigotry exploded in her face? Well, what Musburger said about Smith and Carlos was worse.

A portion of the Musburger column:

Smith and Carlos looked like a couple of black-skinned storm troopers, holding aloft their black-gloved hands during the playing of the National Anthem. They sprinkled their symbolism with black track shoes and black scarfs and black power medals. It’s destined to go down as the most unsubtle demonstration in the history of protest.

But you’ve got to give Smith and Carlos credit for one thing. They knew how to deliver whatever it was they were trying to deliver on international television, thus insuring maximum embarrassment for the country that is picking up the tab for their room and board here in Mexico City. One gets a little tired of having the United States run down by athletes who are enjoying themselves at the expense of their country.


The more things change, the more they stay the same. We still have to choose between highlighting wrong and pushing for racial equality and making sure we don’t upset (mostly but not exclusively) white people who believe our job should be to make them comfortable, even if it means that racial injustice reigns.

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About the author

Issac J. Bailey

Bailey is a Harvard University Nieman Fellow and author of the book, "My Brother Moochie: Reclaiming Dignity in the Face of Crime, Poverty and Racism in the American South." He's a husband and father.