Tommie Smith was in Tokyo for the 1967 World University Games. A Japanese reporter came up to him and asked him, “Were Negroes now equal to the whites in the way they were treated?”
According to Richard Hoffer and his brilliant book about the 1968 Mexico City Games, Something in the Air, Smith said that they were not. Then Smith was asked if a boycott of the Mexico City Games was a possibility. Smith replied “you cannot rule out the possibility.” Since there was absolutely no talk of boycotts up to that point, Smith’s comment to the Japanese press spread to the international press, and by the time the 200-meter sprinter returned to American and to San Jose State College, otherwise known as “Speed City” for those on the sprint team, he was deluged with requests for interviews.
By the end of 1967, a sociology professor at San Jose State named Harry Edwards began building a consensus among university administrators and athlete, finding his voice on the issues of black inequality in America. He had formed an organization called the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR). On Thanksgiving Day that year, the OPHR via Edwards called for a boycott of the 1968 Olympics. This was soon followed by a list of demands, including
a boycott of all New York Athletic Club events (a logical move since the club maintained indefensible admission policies), It was also demanding the exclusion of South Africa and Southern Rhodesia from the Olympics, integration of the U.S. Olympic Committee, and, as a bonus, the return of Muhammad Ali’s championship crown. Edwards let it be known that they wouldn’t mind if Avery Brundage, “a devout anti-Semitic and anti-Negro personality,” be replaced as head of the IOC.”
In 1967, Ed Caruthers was the best high jumper in the world. After having tasted a bit of what competition with the best in the world was like at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Caruthers was determined to return to Mexico City and win the gold medal. He told me that his track and field teammates in Tokyo, like Mel Pender and Willie Davenport, were committed and working hard to return to the Olympics and redeem themselves of the disappointment they faced in Tokyo. So when confronted with the possibility of a boycott, the initial reaction of these Black American athletes was different from others like Tommie Smith and John Carlos – they did not believe that a boycott was the right play.
“When Dr Martin Luther King was killed on April 4, 1968, there were a lot of things going on in my mind,” Caruthers told me. “What was I going to do? What is this country going to be like? There were a lot of issues that weighed on me. In the end, I was not in favor of the boycott, and I told those guys. I told them we had to run our asses off and win, which could give us more of a voice, more of an ability to throw light on these issues. You don’t get the best audience if you boycott.”
In the end, the desire to compete and to take advantage of the massive audience tuning into the Olympics won over those who considered a boycott. As Smith teammate, John Carlos said in this Orange County Register interview, “I strongly thought boycotting. For many of us, it as a childhood dream to compete in the Olympics. For Ed (Caruthers), it was a double-whammy because he’d been before, gotten a taste and he wanted to go and shine.
As the world saw, Smith and Carlos saw a non-violent way to protest the state of Blacks in America, by famously donning a black glove and raising their fists in the air while bowing their heads as they stood on the winners’ podium and listened to the American national anthem. They had won the gold and bronze medals respectively in the 200-meter sprint, but they were suspended from the rest of the Games for their actions.
As written in that Orange County Register article, Caruthers is still close to Smith and Carlos. A statue dedicated to the two sprinters was placed at their alma mater, San Jose State, remembering that time when they silently but powerfully spoke out for equal rights.
“If they’d boycotted the Games, nobody would remember them,” Caruthers said. “But now, here we are 40 years later, and people are still talking about it.”