It was Oct. 16, 1968. Almost 50 years ago. Two Americans, the 200-metre sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, had just won gold and silver at the Mexico City Olympics.
Both men were without shoes and wearing black socks as a reminder of black poverty, Smith wearing a black scarf around his neck to symbolize black pride, but the part everyone remembers was the black gloves. Smith with the glove on his right hand, Carlos with the glove on his left, both with their fists raised throughout the playing of the U.S. anthem. (Smith would write later the gloved fist was a human-rights salute, not a black-power salute.)
It was a pivotal moment for the nation. In our locker room at the University of Nebraska, the athletes on the track team watched with particular interest. Our teammate, Charlie Greene (one of the great characters in the history of the sport) had won the bronze medal in the 100 meters at the same Olympics and would go on to win gold in the 4×100-metre relay.
But this was the Mexico City moment the world would remember. Against a backdrop of the horrifying slaughter of student protesters in Mexico, the Vietnam War and race riots back home that summer, Smith and Carlos made their statement with the world watching. Smith and Carlos were duly vilified by the usual suspects and praised by the millions at home who were fighting to end the war and bring something like racial justice to the streets of America.
Things were, in other words, much as they are today, almost 50 years later. A divided nation, racial progress apparently stalled, a hugely unpopular president in the White House. The difference this time is the president himself has become the divider-in-chief. His ugly Twitter assault on athletes who take a knee during the U.S. anthem as a form of peaceful protest (“get the sonofabitches off the field”) led to an immediate reaction from a wide spectrum of athletes and team owners, in and out of football.