Tommy Smith and John Carlos: Taking a Knee or Raising a Fist

I headed home from my volunteer shift on Monday, shortly before 6:00. Lifted Spirits is in the heart of downtown San Jose, and less than a block from city hall.

Outrage over the murder of George Floyd has led to protests around the globe. San Jose is no exception. Protestors chant for hours each day in front of City Hall, followed by marches in the early evening.

As I left Lifted Spirits, I pulled into the mini-mart on the corner to buy a cold drink for the ride home. I had one of those surreal moments when I saw a row of police officers on motorcycles lined up against a two-story mural. I snapped this photo:

Tommy Smith-John Carlos Thank You mural

Tommy Smith-John Carlos Thank You.

The mural depicts a message of thanks to San Jose Olympians, Tommy Smith, and John Carlos. It’s officially titled: Tommy Smith-John Carlos Thank You.

Here is some history, courtesy of Wikipedia:

On the morning of October 16, 1968,[2] US athlete Tommie Smith won the 200 meter race with a world-record time of 19.83 seconds. Australia’s Peter Norman finished second with a time of 20.06 seconds, and the US’s John Carlos finished in third place with a time of 20.10 seconds. After the race was completed, the three went to the podium for their medals.

The two US athletes received their medals shoeless, but wearing black socks, to represent black poverty.[3] Smith wore a black scarf around his neck to represent black pride, Carlos had his tracksuit top unzipped to show solidarity with all blue-collar workers in the US and wore a necklace of beads which he described “were for those individuals that were lynched, or killed and that no-one said a prayer for, that were hung and tarred. It was for those thrown off the side of the boats in the Middle Passage.”[4] All three athletes wore Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) badges after Norman, a critic of Australia’s former White Australia Policy, expressed empathy with their ideals.[5] Sociologist Harry Edwards, the founder of the OPHR, had urged black athletes to boycott the games; reportedly, the actions of Smith and Carlos on October 16, 1968[2] were inspired by Edwards’ arguments.[6]

Both US athletes intended to bring black gloves to the event, but Carlos forgot his, leaving them in the Olympic Village. It was Peter Norman who suggested Carlos wear Smith’s left-handed glove. For this reason, Carlos raised his left hand as opposed to his right, differing from the traditional Black Power salute.[8] When The Star-Spangled Banner played, Smith and Carlos delivered the salute with heads bowed, a gesture which became front-page news around the world. As they left the podium they were booed by the crowd.[9] Smith later said, “If I win, I am American, not a black American. But if I did something bad, then they would say I am a Negro. We are black an,d we are proud of being black. Black America will understand what we did tonight.”[3]

Tommie Smith stated in later years that “We were concerned about the lack of black assistant coaches. About how Muhammad Ali got stripped of his title. About the lack of access to good housing and our kids not being able to attend the top colleges.”[10]

I stood for a moment facing a row of police officers with their backs to the mural. Did any of them register the irony of their position? They stood with their backs to a piece of art depicting two courageous athletes literally using their winning Olympic platform to protest racial injustice?

I got back in my car, prepared to exit onto Santa Clara street. The protestors came down Santa Clara *at that exact moment*, saw the officers, stopped, and turned into the gas station. The protesters addressed the officers with chants, and one protester instructed others “do not throw anything.”

I got out of my car and took a knee. Within a few moments, the marchers returned to their intended route along Santa Clara Street toward City Hall.

Back in my car once again, I asked one of the officers if it was okay to exit on Santa Clara. He said, “It’s not safe for you to be here.” He then directed me toward the row of officers until one of them yelled at me to stop. Within moments they let me exit the lot, and I drove home.

I’m a 60-year-old white woman who’s afforded an unearned privilege based on the color of my skin.

George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, lost his life because of an undeserved bias based on the color of his skin.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The time for change is now.

44 thoughts on “Tommy Smith and John Carlos: Taking a Knee or Raising a Fist

  1. I have been considering the nature of privilege. I don’t ask for it, I don’t expect it, but I notice when it’s gone. And of course, it’s misleading to call it ‘privilege’. It should be called ‘ordinary’ instead, because it’s what we are ALL entitled to expect no matter what colour ‘clothes’ our bodies wear, which is decent, honourable treatment, the ability to go about our business unmolested, and a measure of respect from those whose salaries our taxes pay and who are there to protect us.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Unfortunately, it’s the ugly reality and has been for centuries. This country has moved from slavery to segregation and with the election of our current president, the racists have been emboldened. Police departments are rife with dysfunction or this wouldn’t keep happening again and again and again. It’s unfathomable to me that violence against people of color continues, not just be law enforcement but by the citizenry as well. I enjoyed your post on this subject, Kate, and I appreciate your thoughtful comments here as well.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. What a touching story. I have been wondering how to get involved, and just how violent things were downtown, but from your first hand experience, it looks like they are really trying to make it a peaceful march. I also liked how they were all wearing masks, and seemed to be social distancing themselves. The mural was great, and very ironic!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for commenting, Darlene. Most of the protestors are non-violent. The violence that happens, almost always after dark, are not generally part of the peaceful protesting, but people looking to agitate and inflame, and to loot and steal. If you want to take part in a protest, there are guidelines on ways to stay safe.


    • Thank you, Laurie. I’m coping by immersing myself in volunteer work, sometimes to the point of exhaustion. The alternative is to sit around and stew over the misery and the injustice. Supporting homeless women, who of course are disproportionaley black and brown, gives me some purpose. I’ve subscribed to a few publications over the years including Race Forward, NAACP and Colorlines, all of whom lift up and support black voices. I long for true equity and equality, housing for everyone, freedom to walk the streets unharmed. It seems so simple. We were raised with “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” How hard can that be?

      Yes, tragic. Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I hope this time it makes a difference, that we go to our communities and state legislatures and up and say enough times, not “this has to stop” but here is what we want done to stop this. Legislate. Implement. Revisit. Repeat.


    • Yes to all of the above, and VOTE! I lack the energy and the ambition to run for office, but Obama encourages our youth to get involved at the grass roots level. It’s the best place to start. We need ro remove the old guard, and elect representation of women and minorities, not just old, rich, white men.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Oh my goodness, Alys, you really did get yourself in harms way almost. We have had many protests up here too with many outsiders coming in to take advantage of the situation to do violence and destruction. Why, when so many feel as we do, is this change still waiting to happen? I agree, #45 needs to move on. The world needs him to move on but he will pull out all the dirty tricks he knows to become king or dictator. Like you, I’m worried for our country and so many others in similar situations. I have an interesting article that I found in a “Yes” magazine that I bought months ago and just had time to read some of that I will scan and email to you ASAP.


    • Thanks for joining the conversation, Marlene. I look forward to the scans of the “Yes” article. The sad truth is that many people in this country support the policies of this administration. The concept of white supremacy permeates everything: women and people of color are not properly represented in congress, nor in board rooms, or other significant places at the top. The majority of this country’s senators are rich, white, millionaires. They don’t see it or they don’t get it, or they simply prefer the status quo. I feel a sea change. My first-person account, above, all happened quickly and organically. It was an emotionally charged moment, one I won’t forget. It felt good to take a knee in that brief moment in time.


      • I could feel that emotion in your words. I’m with you 100% with the disconnect of our so called leaders. It’s definitely time for sweeping change. Too bad it takes such upheaval to get there…as usual. I have scanned the article and will email it this afternoon.. I’m working outside between the blessed rain. I hate to see it come to an end. Note to follow.


        • Thank you, Marlene. The next six months are going to be trying for all: unemployment, an uptick in infections, and then the inevitable infections that descend in the fall. Sweeping change will be hard but necessary if we are to get out from under this dysfunctional and hateful system.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Have faith, Alys. It always takes great chaos to bring sweeping change. It will come. I’m struggling with the negativity as well. It’s wearing on me but I have to believe good will come from this insanity. Everything must and will change. Change hurts. I’m here for you and it will help me too. We can’t let them get us down.

            Liked by 1 person

  5. Alys, your words are thoughtful and caring, as always. The juxtaposition of the police and the mural was so timely, and you were there to capture it.
    The protests have given a strong boost to protests here in Australia, where Indigenous People face frightening levels of injustice, including over 400 deaths in custody since 1991. I hope that this time there will be permanent changes made in both our countries.


    • Anne, like you I hope we will finally recognize that the time to end these injustices is now. It’s interesting to read about the parallels in other countries where indigenous people have been brutalized and marginalized for so long. Power in the wrong hands is a dangerous thing. I’ll never understand the hate and the sense of entitlement. Thank you for being another wonderful voice in this vast world. Sending mutual respect and admiration.


  6. I burst into tears when you ‘took a knee’. Your police are not really protectors are they – they seem to be a law unto themselves. I was relieved you got away from them safely.

    Alys, I’ve been unwell and ended up in hospital, so I’m a bit floaty and off the planet currently but I wanted to let you know I’ve read this. I’ve been thinking a lot about what’s been going on in your country and perhaps to a less horrendous but still unacceptable extent in all countries that are founded on the intentions and deeds of white men of money – that is, the entire western world….. Several articles have arrived at the exact right moment to educate and inspire – but the resolution is not straightforward. Sending you love xoxo

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sending love back your way, Pauline. I’m sorry you’ve been unwell (and of course we’ve corresponded privately since you left your comment), but I wanted to reply here as well.

      Police officers in this country take an oath to uphold and defend the law. Many of them do the opposite. I know they are not all bad, but the system itself is broken and in need of a complete overhaul. This never, ever, ever should have happened but instead, it’s become the norm. Enough. xo


  7. Your post brought tears to my eyes, Alys. I had considered emailing you on this subject as I knew you would be appalled by the response from a certain person in power.

    Needless to say, I am aghast at the response to the police brutality and the complete lack of care shown by the people who should have made sure this didn’t happen in the first place.


    • Thank you for thinking of me, Helen. It took me a few days to organize my thoughts into words before sharing this post. The air crackles with the energy of these protests, and sadly, the pushback from a number of police officers, supposedly sworn to protect and uphold. The killing of George Floyd, coupled with our racist administration and this horrible pandemic, disproportionately killing people of color split open a terrible wound 400 years in the making. I hope we are finally ready for real reform.


  8. This is a wonderful post. I am so heartened to hear of so many people who are choosing to stand up against this once and for all. I really feel like now is our chance to elicit change. Thank you.


  9. Geez hey !? Sounds a bit nerve racking hon. I’m glad you were able to get home safely without witnessing any brutality against the marchers or inadvertently swept up in any police action. Thankfully, it sounds like the March in San Jose was safer than others I’ve seen on the news. I guess the local police totally missed the irony of their position taken under the mural. Isn’t that a statement too? Feels like a racial turning point doesn’t it? I hope so . xK


    • It does feel, finally, like we’ve turned a corner. Defunding police departments and revamping a broken system will be a good start. It’s time to end sanctioned police brutality. We’ve got to elect women and people of color to an office so that they have a voice. It’s been sickening to witness the continued police brutality. They are supposed to defend and uphold the law, not break it.

      It was a moment in time when I took a knee. I’ve taken part in marches and protests before, so I read the crowd and felt safe at that moment taking a knee in a way that shows my belief and solidarity with the peaceful marchers in San Jose.

      You are so right, it is a statement. It feels like a turning point. Let’s see if we can bring about real and lasting change. I certainly hope so. Thanks for being here.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Powerful post, Alys. It’s good to see the country focused on the problems of racism and policing. I hope this is a turning point in our history. November can not arrive soon enough. Biden for Change!


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