Human rights wrong.
All who are unwilling to accept revisionist history should be startled by Jonah Goldberg's column, "1968 protest remains a stain on the Olympics," in the July 31 Register-Guard.
Tommie Smith was my roommate at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. He was the most beautiful sprinter I ever saw.
Equally well-formed was his conscience.
At the victory ceremony after he won the 200 meters in a then-world record 19.83 seconds, he and bronze medalist John Carlos bowed their heads during the U.S. national anthem and shot black gloved fists to the sky.
They meant their unshod feet to represent black poverty, their scarf and beads to signify black lynchings, their fists to mean black unity and power. Any resemblance to Lady Liberty raising her torch was ironic, for they were taking U.S. society to task for having failed to extend liberty and justice to all.
Afterward, Smith repeatedly said that he loved his country and simply wanted it to be better.
"It was not a gesture of hate," he said. "It was a gesture of frustration."
Smith, a shy and fiercely private man, has lived a life that is anything but self-promoting. A lifelong teacher, coach and mentor, his walls are hung with commendations for church and community service.
Carlos, the more combative and antic of the two, long has coached at Palm Springs High School. Smith and Carlos were galvanized to their act not by ego but by their cause, the need to inform the nation that it had not yet kept the founding promise of democracy.
Goldberg says their Olympic Project for Human Rights, begun by Harry Edwards at San Jose State, "considered an entire generation of heroic black athletes, including Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson, to be Uncle Toms."
Smith and Carlos did no such thing. What they did was understand how much Owens had yet to achieve.
Jesse, whose four golds in the 1936 Berlin Olympics made a mockery of Adolf Hitler's Aryan supremacy theories, embodied the black athlete who labored to be "a credit to his race."
Owens was always polite, always humble. He never complained about being reduced to racing horses after the Olympics. He never spoke ill of the hotels that turned him away, the restaurants that refused him service. Or the society that let this happen.
Owens preached that if a man worked hard enough and if he endured racial taunts without lashing back, the way Joe Louis and Robinson had, he would win the white man's respect and things would change. But things weren't changing much, if at all.
So members of the next generation of black athletes intended to stand as equals with whites and point out the ills that needed curing. Even Robinson agreed it was time, saying in 1968, "I say use whatever means a to get our rights here in this country. When for 300 years, Negroes have been denied equal opportunity, some attention must be focused on it."
Was Smith and Carlos' act superfluous? Goldberg seems to think so.
"This was 1968," he wrote, "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 Amerikka' 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."
Those acts, of course, simply changed the law. Black Americans still had to change millions of minds and hearts. Every black member of the 1968 U.S. team, regardless of whether he or she agreed with OPHR's tactics, had experienced brutal racism.
U.S. sprint coach Stan Wright had witnessed 6,000 rounds fired during a 1966 police riot at the dorms at his Texas Southern University in Houston. Waves of cops targeted and beat athletes, hunting future 100-meter champion Jim Hines (who was lucky he lived off campus).
Martin Luther King was assassinated in April 1968, Robert Kennedy in June of that same year. Every fear, it seemed in that year of agony, was justified. Society had hardly begun opening its arms to a once-despised minority.
Tommie Smith embraced King's stand on nonviolence.
"I did not and will not raise a gun," he said. "Only an issue."
Neither he nor Carlos deserve to be lumped with and morally tarred by the age's violent radicals. Just the opposite. Smith, Carlos and the civil rights leaders of their generation made the American public understand that the thousand ways in law and custom and language and stereotype by which whites pressed blacks into subservience were unconscionable in a society of equals.
They took the baton from Owens and changed the terms of the debate. The need was so compelling they always have felt they could do no other.
Was theirs not true courage? The sacks of hate mail I helped lug after they were thrown out of the Olympic village testify otherwise. The mildest of those murderous missives sounded a lot like Goldberg, ranting that they "spat" on their country or on the Olympic ideal.
Goldberg, I learn, was not born until a year after the Mexico City Games. Why, then, this uncommon vitriol in the face of an act of conscience?
His and many other conservative opinions seem grounded in an almost reflexive loathing of the 1960s, forever fighting and refighting the battles between the silent patriotic majority and the radical monsters.
As one who came to moral consciousness then, I see the civil rights movement as the most dramatic struggle over what it means to be an American. It showed the enormous good that can come from a few brave individuals marching out to face dogs and fire hoses.
It proved that the conscience of the nation can be provoked. It gave hope that other social wrongs could be addressed. It deserves better than a default-mode condemnation.
The Register-Guard nobly presents the full spectrum of opinion on these pages because, like it or not, these are the things uttered in the full spectrum of our community. But for opinion to have meaning it must be based on fact.
The best response to erroneous speech, then, is correcting speech, fact-checking speech. We always must summon the charity to forgive ignorance. We always must explain, seven times seven.
Yet fact just never registers with a few. Those poor souls must be earmarked, asterisked.
So what I've done is stick Goldberg's name up by the numbers to call to report smoke intrusions or toxic spills, as a reminder that he's proven to confuse reason with character assassination.
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|Title Annotation:||Local Opinion|
|Publication:||The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)|
|Date:||Aug 24, 2008|
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