Quoting Martin Luther King Jr., former President Barack Obama often stated, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Contrary to optimistic interpretation, this statement does not attest to the supposed inertia of justice or equality. Indeed, history’s darkest moments provide plentiful proof that apathy, and the assumption of inevitable righteousness that gives rise to it, can preclude the march of progress, and at times even reverse it. Sadly, we often partake in this apathy by allowing ourselves to forget the moments and movements that precipitated great instances of progress, be they equal rights written into law or the inclusive attitudes that breathe life into these liberties.
This coming Tuesday, Oct. 16, serves as a chance to remember one such moment. It marks the 50th anniversary of a silent protest that has found a worthy complement in former quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s actions on the football field, one that took place in a crowded stadium and ultimately found itself at the center of something much larger. Captured forever in a photograph that embodies the tempest of 1968 like no other photograph can, the national anthem protest by African-American U.S. Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos has solidified their legacy as one of legitimate resistance.
The 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, like others before them, were supposed to be exercises in wholesome athletic competition, but that did not exempt them from the turbulence of that year. America’s racial and domestic wounds were still fresh four months after the assassination of presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy and six months after the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. The violence seemed to follow American athletes to the Olympics — just two weeks before Smith and Carlos would mount the podium, dozens of students were ruthlessly gunned down by Mexican soldiers following weeks of protests.
It was still in America, however, where Smith and Carlos had the least to be happy about. As if systemic racial prejudice was not enough, only slightly more than half of African-American adults held high school degrees in 1968, and less than a tenth had gone on to earn bachelor’s degrees. These despairingly low rates of educational attainment, paling in comparison to similar measures for whites, spoke to the fallacy of an American Dream for all.
Smith and Carlos wanted to do something about it and demanded better treatment for Black athletes by organizing the Olympics Project for Human Rights earlier that year. They initially considered boycotting the 1968 Olympics, but later decided to compete in order to give their campaign a more visible platform. At a time when most white Americans still winced at the very suggestion of integrated neighborhoods, Smith knew that sports gave minorities like him and Carlos a real voice, reflecting later that, “We had to be seen because we couldn’t be heard.”
By today’s standards, the defiant salute during the rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” that Smith and Carlos chose to protest these grievances was a relatively passive gesture. Even as they clenched their fists and donned symbolic clothing to convey their dissatisfaction with the status quo, they made sure to stand for the entire duration of the national anthem. And, though it is probably more a reflection of devolving presidential temperaments than anything else, then-president Lyndon B. Johnson and then-presidential candidate Richard Nixon were silent about the whole affair, while Kaepernick’s anthem protests have inspired rather undignified words from President Donald Trump.
However, society’s standards have evidently evolved since then. Smith and Carlos would not be icons today if their protest was well-received by Americans. They were expelled from the stadium and suspended from the U.S. Olympic team following the ceremony, and death threats predictably followed. Life was not made easy for them. Yet, to this day, neither regrets the courageous actions they took to show the public their struggle at home. Whatever they accomplished in Mexico City was clearly worth it.
But what exactly was it that Smith and Carlos accomplished with their gesture? They did not articulate a specific policy to alleviate the ills of Black America, nor did they put forth the funds to elevate their fellow, lower-class African Americans, actions often demanded of those who dare to gripe about discrimination. Just as they do not aspire for acceptance in the mainstream, effective social movements do not often set their sights on an immediate redirection of policy. At a time when even violent dispersal of American protesters was widely supported, gaining the support of an American majority, especially for an act of protest during the national anthem, was grossly infeasible for activists.
Instead, in democratic societies like America, legitimate resistance against unjust status quos has nearly always relied on the ability of movements to capture the complacency of the uninterested majority and steer it toward a path of liberalization. This agitation, an inherent disruption and inconvenience to the majority, is what engenders a sense of injustice, and demand for subsequent change, where there was none before. When people like Smith and Carlos turn what should be a moment of personal pride into one of complaining about America’s problems at home — yes, complaining — then the rest of the country begins to see how real their anger must be, and in doing so, embarks on a journey toward increased tolerance and acceptance.
The work of Martin Luther King Jr. embodies this well: King did not expect to see a drastic decrease in anti-miscegenation sentiment in his lifetime, nor did he directly lobby legislators to mandate public acceptance of interracial marriage. But, the mere presence of his “radical” calls for racial equality, along with other, subtler attempts at normalizing interracial relations in the national discourse, helped make that evolution in racial attitudes a reality — contributing to an American tradition of using expansive platforms for meaningful speech.
By this measure, the decision by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in 2016 to refuse to stand for the national anthem, since carried on by other NFL players, is simply a continuation of this tradition. Kaepernick’s kneeling during the anthem at NFL games was his way of using his platform for political means, like Smith and Carlos. In his case, it was to call attention to what he views as disproportionate police brutality towards African Americans, certainly a sacrifice if one takes into account his being effectively blackballed from the NFL and receiving death threats.
From the perspective of Kaepernick, there is no platform better to project dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs than the national anthem, our symbolic embodiment of the state itself. This sentiment was clearly not shared by Kaepernick’s employers or, as of the latest polls, a majority of the country as well.
Nevertheless, Kaepernick has demonstrated his desire to respect the men and women in uniform who have reason to view the anthem as more than a symbol. Instead of fixating on the supposed patriotism of his kneeling, we should ask ourselves whether his gesture was any more disrespectful than that of Smith and Carlos in 1968 at the Olympics, which attracted similar criticisms and backlash. For without the actions of Smith and Carlos and the like, the current atmosphere would not even allow Kaepernick to take a knee, and much less sit, for the anthem, nor would it allow Nike to successfully use his protest in a popular ad campaign.
That Kaepernick’s actions do not immediately fix the attitudes he takes issue with, or that he is generally not viewed favorably by his fellow athletes or Americans, is no reason to dismiss his protest as empty or unpatriotic. In fact, this view would constitute a failure on our part to recognize those who legitimately resist injustices, injustices that might not be solved by the next year or even the next generation. By definition, the Kaepernicks of the world do not often find majority approval in the present, but instead in the future. Tommie Smith said it best when recalling his controversial actions in Mexico City: “We were not wrong. We were only ahead of our time.”
Ethan Kessler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.