When Knox College’s Ariyana Smith lay on a basketball game for 4.5 minutes before the start of the game against Fontbonne University in Clayton, Missouri, last November, she was following in what is now an established tradition of the activist/athlete.
To show her solidarity with Mike Brown, the 18-year-old Ferguson, Missouri, teenager killed by a white police officer and the protesters who’d been on the streets since the Feb. 9, 2014, shooting, Smith raised a clenched fist, put both hands above her head, dropped to her knees before the American flag and lay on the floor as the national anthem ended.
At a recent panel discussion titled #BlackLivesMatter and the Power of Sports, panelists talked about the close ties between sports and activism. Another athlete, much better known but just as committed to social justice, equality and fairness as Smith, exhorted a standing-room-only crowd never to shy away from the struggle for human dignity.
“We just want the opportunity to be treated like human beings,” said 1968 200-meter Olympic bronze medalist John Carlos during the #BlackLivesMatter and the Power of Sports panel discussion. “It’s absolutely obscene that 46 years later, this is still going on.”
Carlos, 69, is revered for standing on the podium with gold medal winner Tommie Smith, heads bowed, each wearing a single black glove, arms raised in a black-power salute as they received their medals in Mexico City. The men said theirs was a protest about the living conditions of blacks and other people of color in the United States, as well as a tribute to their African-American heritage. Officials from the U.S. Olympic and International Olympic committees were not amused, and after claiming that the men’s action ran counter to the ideals of the Games, they banned Smith and Carlos from the Olympic Village and sent them home.
For years, the men were ostracized, vilified and marginalized for their actions and paid a high price, but neither bowed nor apologized for what they did. As moderator Dave Zirin noted, Smith and Carlos’ show of defiance remains one of the most iconic images of Olympic history and the black power movement.
“I’ve been to hell and back, and I look almost as good as my son Malik because God has taken care of me,” Carlos said. “In Los Angeles, they put a chokehold on me, and I told the officer I have no fear. We have to step up, stand tall, make it an issue for them. Most of us are afraid. We need to leave a precedent and future for our kids.”
“I told the guys in Mexico that it would take 15 minutes of their life. They said I’ve trained all my life, said, ‘the church and Old Glory is counting on me to get one of those medals.’ It was imperative that John Carlos go to the Olympic Games. I was a symbol for all oppressed people in the U.S. and around the world. There were no misgivings about what I did or had to do. They told me I’d never work again; they put drugs on the table. I grew up in Harlem and saw this stuff … there were holes in my life, things to they did to corrupt me, hurt my family.”