THIS month, ESPN awarded Tommie Smith and John Carlos the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPYs (the sports network’s equivalent of the Oscars) for their once-infamous black-power salutes from the medal platform at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.
Comments by ESPN sportscaster Stuart Scott typify the inanity of ESPN’s award. Scott, who was 3 years old in 1968, nonetheless told the Desert Sun newspaper that he remembers how “tense” the times were and how he remembers thinking, “Oh, that was cool for a black man to do that.” He added: “As an adult, I get it even more now.” Even more than when he was barely out of diapers? That’s setting the bar high.
Is it even worth trying to remind people today that the black-power salute was, for those who brandished it seriously, a symbol of violence—rhetorical, political and literal—against the United States? It was the high sign for a racist militia, the Black Panthers, which orchestrated the murder of innocents and allied itself with America’s enemies. In today’s lingo, you might even say black power was “divisive.”
But even a more benign view of the salute shouldn’t obscure the intense contradictions of ESPN’s decision to honor Carlos and Smith. Both men were members of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, which wanted a complete black boycott of the ’68 Olympics. The group considered an entire generation of heroic black athletes, including Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson, to be Uncle Toms.
Another important distinction is that this was 1968, not 1938. By the end of the 1960s, America had seen two decades of steady—if too slow—racial progress. The black-power vision of an irredeemably “racist Amerikkka” was all but blind to the desegregation of the military, the accomplishments of Owens and Robinson and the civil-rights acts of 1957, 1960, 1964 and even 1968. One hopes ESPN disagrees with those views as well.