In late August 2016, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick explained that he was “not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” A few months later, he was out of pro football, seemingly for good. Kaepernick’s blackballing by the NFL has been met by widespread outrage and even protests. But Kaepernick has also been called a coward and a traitor to his country, and it’s easy to go on social media and find people who call him much, much worse.
Kaepernick is far from the first athlete to lead a protest movement, and he’s also far from the first to face a racist backlash for doing so. Among his forebears are John Carlos and Tommie Smith, who raised black-gloved fists during their medal ceremony at the 1968 Olympic Games. “If I win, I am American, not a black American,” Smith said, explaining that he’d made the salute as a gesture of black power. “But if I did something bad, then they would say I am a Negro. We are black and we are proud of being black. Black America will understand what we did tonight.”
According to author Mark Kurlansky, Carlos and Smith wore those gloves in part because they planned to refuse to shake the hand of Avery Brundage, the president of the International Olympic Committee. The 81-year-old, Detroit-born Brundage, who it turned out wasn’t in attendance for that medal ceremony, had supported the inclusion of apartheid-era South Africa in the Olympics and had fought against proposed boycotts of Hitler’s 1936 Games. But after Carlos and Smith raised their fists, it was the black American athletes, not the IOC president, who faced serious consequences. The United States Olympic Committee suspended Carlos and Smith from the American Olympic team and banned them from the Olympic Village. Meanwhile, Brundage received scores of letters in response to Carlos and Smith’s actions, the majority of which supported the IOC president and denigrated the Olympians, often in the crudest possible terms.
The first of those letters, which are part of the Avery Brundage Collection at the International Centre for Olympic Studies at the University of Western Ontario, arrived on Brundage’s desk by Oct. 19, 1968—just three days after Carlos and Smith raised their fists. One of the first of those missives, sent by Thomas J. Dunne of Chicago,complained, incorrectly, that the “silent protest” of Carlos and Smith was actually a “communist clenched fist salute.” Dunne hoped Brundage and the IOC would “disqualify these two from all further competition,” while returning the “awards” they’d won during the Olympic track and field events. (The men were allowed to keep their medals.)
Many of the letters echoed Dunne’s concerns. A woman from Compton, California, called Smith and Carlos “inferior” and argued that their “medals should be taken away,” as they did “not represent the people of the United States.” (She also thanked Brundage “for permitting me to talk with you on the phone last [evening].”) A Mrs. J. Becker, in a handwritten note, said that Carlos and Smith “detested their country.”
Almost all the letters Brundage received painted black Americans in a negative light. One letter congratulated him for having the courage to “stand up” to “militant blacks,” while another argued that “black militancy among” American Olympic athletes was just as “equally disgusting as black militancy in the United States.” Brundage should “recall all colored participants of the United States team without further recourse,” one correspondent said.
John D. Leidholt, the team doctor for the NFL’s Denver Broncos, told Brundage it was “about time that someone with courage stands up to militant whites and blacks.” The orthopedist wrote that he couldn’t understand why Carlos and Smith didn’t “leave the United States and migrate to some other country.” Ed Haran of Boca Raton, Florida, considered black militants a “group of morons” and felt black Americans should “stop the crying” about their situation “and take advantage of the free education offered” to “thereby advance their own course.” Otherwise, Haran argued, it was “no wonder they are in their present condition.” Haran, like Leidholt, also noted that Carlos and Smith should go to “any other country of their choosing” that would “accept them.”
One writer considered Carlos and Smith “treasonable black rats.” Edna Howl of Omaha, Nebraska, called their actions “a national disgrace” and wrote that Carlos and Smith should “return to the stone-age delights of tribal Africa,” as the “Negro race” had “contributed nothing toward civilization” in spite of “excelling in motor coordination.” Fred M. Young Sr. of Racine, Wisconsin, wrote a letter on company stationery asking the U.S. Olympic Committee whether “moving pictures of the competition horsemanship, jumping, [and] equestrian” might be available. In that same note, he called for violence against Carlos and Smith, arguing that the “colored men who disgraced” the United States “should be shot for treason and nothing less!”
The letters written to Brundage were never published and were thus hidden from public view until they became available at various universities. The opinions espoused in letters sent to newspapers, while not much kinder to Carlos and Smith, were less virulently racist. William E. Carsley, writing to the Chicago Tribune, argued that Carlos and Smith acted like “a pair of boorish refugees from a motorcycle gang” and said the duo clearly “achieved no satisfaction from competing for their country.” Donald McDonald of Long Beach, California, wrote to the Los Angeles Times that the actions of Carlos and Smith showed that the United States “debased itself in its childish crusade for international athletic publicity by permitting anyone of whatever skin coloration to publicly humiliate it and its national anthem.” And a writer going by the initials T.M.G. argued in the Philadelphia Inquirer that the athletes’ protest “was a disgrace, not to the United States, but to themselves and the race they represent.”
Carlos and Smith did have some supporters. Mrs. James Barrabee, writing to Brundage from Ann Arbor, Michigan, explained that, as a “white American,” she was “moved beyond tears by the magnificent gesture” made by Carlos and Smith. Moreover, she criticized Brundage for refusing to “even try to understand what must be the terrific agony of the black American in his struggle for self-pride and freedom.” And writing to the Los Angeles Times from Santa Monica, California, Marcelle Fortier argued that the “duality of their national allegiance” highlighted by the black power salute “was not created by so-called black Americans” but was “ruthlessly insisted upon by the overwhelming majority of their so-called white fellow countrymen over 300 years of repression and disdain.”
Carlos and Smith are now viewed almost universally as civil rights heroes—there’s even a statue in their honor on the campus of San Jose State University. Kaepernick already has received a spate of awards for his activism. Even so, the reactions to his protest have been just as racist, vile, and hateful as the responses received by Carlos and Smith in the 1960s. And that says a lot about our national progress.