Months before the Olympic Games even began many Black athletes had decided not to attend the event. The organized boycott, named the Olympic Project for Human Rights was led by sociologist Harry Edwards. The movement began at his San Jose California home in September of 1967. The students were engaged in protests regarding inadequate housing and exclusion from various fraternities. The member athletes were resolved to protest their representation of the United States and potential victory on behalf of a country that failed to recognize their rights. Tommy Smith, one of the athletes, said “I’m not only willing to give up participating in Mexico City, but I’d give up my life if necessary to open a door or channel to reduce bigotry.”
The OPHR had three demands: Restore Muhammad Ali’s title (it was stripped when he refused the Vietnam draft in 1967), Remove Avery Brundage as head of the United States Olympic Committee (he was a notorious white supremacist), and Disinvite South Africa and Rhodesia (both were apartheid states). Only the third demand was met.
Previous to this game the United States was the center of the international stage. The Tet Offensive occurred in January, Martin Luther King was assassinated in April, and race riots broke out across the country, and Robert Kennedy was assassinated in June. The athletes ultimately decided they would participate in the games, but they did not relent on the struggle entirely.
Tommie Smith and John Carlos both competed in the 200 meter event. Tommie Smith took the gold and Carlos took the bronze. When it came time to play the national anthem both stood with heads bowed, bare feet (in protest of poverty), beads (to protest lynching) and fists donned in black gloves raised in the air representative of Black power. Within hours Carlos and Smith were both expelled and stripped of their medals.
“At a press conference following the event, Tommie Smith said: “If I win I am an American, not a black American. But if I did something bad then they would say 'a Negro'. We are black and we are proud of being black... Black America will understand what we did tonight." He said that he had raised his right fist to represent black power in the US, whilst Carlos had raised his left fist to represent black unity. Together, they intended to form an arch of unity and power. In the September of the previous year, Smith told reporters that black members of the American Olympic team were considering a total boycott of the 1968 games. "It is very discouraging to be in a team with white athletes. On the track you are Tommie Smith, the fastest man in the world, but once you are in the dressing rooms you are nothing more than a dirty Negro."