In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I’d like to share a powerful story of those who stood for equality that I just was made aware of. I loved this story for a few reasons. First of all, it took place in Mexico City, Mexico, a place that is very near and dear to my heart. Secondly, those involved were runners, an activity that I love as well. And finally because of the pure courage these men had to stand together in the face of what they had to have known would be overwhelming criticism.
In 1968 the Summer Olympics were held in Mexico City, Mexico. In the semi-finals Tommie Smith and John Carlos, two African-American runners representing San Jose State University in California finished as the top runners and qualified for the finals. An Australian man named Peter Norman also qualified, barely. Going into the finals, Peter knew he would have to up his game to get a medal. In the final race, Peter ran his heart out, and set a new personal record, as well as a record time for the country of Australia. Tommie Smith just happened to set a world record that day for the gold medal. Peter took Silver and John the Bronze. That is where the real story begins.
The Olympic Games were taking place just months following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Smith and Carlos had determined that while taking the stand for the medal ceremony they would also take a stand for human rights. They both wore a badge for the Olympic Project for Human Rights. They informed Norman of their intentions, as they knew there was a possibility of backlash. Norman chose to stand with his fellow runners, fellow men. Norman even procured a badge from another athlete to wear on the stand. As the Olympians took the podium and the American National Anthem played, Smith and Carlos removed their shoes, bowed their heads and each raised a black-gloved hand, the salute of the famous activist group the Black Panthers. (Years later Smith would clarify the salute that brought much ridicule due to the often negative and violent acts perpetrated by the Black Panthers. His intention was not to degrade America or her Flag but to draw attention to the failings of a nation and the poor treatment of a people.)
Peter Norman stood there with them, with a firmness that would be needed to carry him through his remaining years. At the time, Australia was an extremely segregated nation, more so than even the U.S., approaching that of South Africa. Each of those three men knew they would face criticism and consequences for their actions that day. For Smith and Carlos, death threats followed and it was several years before they received much deserved recognition for the heroic stand they took. This included a statue on the square at San Jose State University. The statue shows the 3 Olympic podiums with Smith and Carlos standing in salute. Norman is not depicted. When asked if he wanted to be represented, he declined, giving credit to Smith and Carlos.
For Norman, the recognition didn’t come until after his death. Despite qualifying again for the Olympics four years later, Peter Norman was forbidden to represent his country. Many years later when the Olympics were held in Australia, Peter Norman was told he couldn’t join the Olympic circle unless he publicly denounced his actions 32 years prior. He refused. (Upon hearing this, the American Olympic Committee invited him to join them.) When Peter Norman died in 2006, Tommie Smith and John Carlos were among his pallbearers. In 2008 the Australian government finally issued a public statement apologizing for the wrongs done to Norman and commending him for standing up for Human Rights.
I was recently in San Jose for work and took some time to go track down the statue. It is in a lovely little garden area and is very serene. It was there that I started to compose this post.
Too often in the world today, we lose track of those basic and true human rights. We confuse privilege with right. We confuse being the same with being equal. So many want to fight for a cause that they miss the bigger picture of what it means to stand for something. Fighting for human rights isn’t about fighting at all. These men stood together, not to be seen as special or powerful or the same, but as fellow human beings. For me, Peter Norman held the key. During an interview John Carlos said that as they were heading out to the podium, people standing and cheering, music playing, the eyes of the world on them, he knew there was no turning back. While he didn’t doubt his own convictions he was curious about this stranger who chose to stand with them, Peter Norman. Carlos said that he expected to see fear in Norman’s eyes. As his eyes met Norman’s he did not see the fear he anticipated. Carlos said, “I saw love.”