Story Of White Athlete Peter Norman Shunned For Standing By Black Olympians John Carlos And Tommie Smith Teaches Important Lesson In Allyship
The photograph of John Carlos and Tommie Smith giving a human rights salute at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City has quite rightly become one of the most iconic images in the history of the civil rights movement.
The African American athletes, who had earned gold and bronze medals in the 200-metre running event, were photographed standing on the podium, each silently raising a black-gloved fist as the US national anthem, The Star Spangled Banner, played.
As well as the black gloves – known to be a symbol of the Black Panther movement – the two men received their medals without shoes on to represent black poverty, while Smith, who had set a new world record at 19.83 seconds, wore a black scarf to signify black pride.
Carlos unzipped his tracksuit top in solidarity with US blue-collar workers, and wore a beaded necklace to represent ‘those individuals that were lynched, or killed and that no-one said a prayer for, that were hung and tarred’.
This peaceful demonstration took place just months after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Tennessee, with his death sparking uprisings in cities throughout America.
And so it was that Carlos and Smith took to the podium during a particularly turbulent time in US history, with Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) badges pinned to their tracksuits.
Smith and Carlos helped establish the OPHR group, alongside San Jose State College sociologist Harry Edwards, with the intention of taking a stand against racial segregation in the US and further afield.
Standing by their side was silver medallist Peter Norman, a white Australian man who also cared deeply about human rights. Although Norman’s likeness is missing from the San Jose State University statue, his heroism is an integral part of the story.
It was Norman who suggested Smith and Carlos wear one glove each after they realised they only had a single pair between them.
Showing solidarity with their cause, Norman asked Smith and Carlos if they had another OPHR badge going spare that he could wear alongside them. They did not, however, another Olympian from the American team – a white rower named Paul Hoffman – was able to lend his.
Speaking with The Sydney Morning Herald two decades ago, Norman explained:
My attitude was, they’d earned the right to do what they thought they had to do with their one square metre of Olympic dais, and I was glad they were doing it, and glad I was with them.
As reported by The Wire, Carlos recalled:
We knew that what we were going to do was far greater than any athletic feat, and [Norman] said, ‘I’ll stand with you’. I expected to see fear in Norman’s eyes, but instead we saw love.
The crowds booed and cursed the salute, and, the very next day, the International Olympic Comittee (IOC) decided to strip the champions of their medals.
The matter was taken so seriously that Carlos and Smith were removed from the Olympic Village, and indeed Mexico, with immediate effect. IOC President Avery Brundage even threatened to boot out the entire US team. The rower Hoffman also faced accusations of conspiracy.
In an official statement, Brundage described the salute as being ‘a deliberate and violent breach of the fundamental principles of the Olympic spirit’, as per the Time Life book The Olympics: Moments That Changed History.
The incident was regarded as extremely controversial and far too political at the time, with Carlos and Smith facing fierce criticism, acts of vandalism and even death threats upon their return to the US.
Norman also experienced a backlash upon his return to Australia, ostracised from the Australian team and left struggling to find work. In later life, he would go on to suffer problems with depression and alcohol addiction.
Despite their incredible talents on the running track, Carlos, Smith and Norman would never again compete in the Olympics, with that one salute having repercussions throughout their lives.
Norman qualified for the Olympics in Germany four years later, for both the 200m and 100m races – in fact, his time of 20.06 seconds remains an Oceanian record to this day – but he was cruelly left off the Australian team. Despite being offered multiple opportunities to be welcomed back into the fold if he condemned Smith and Carlos and separated himself from the historic event, he stood by his fellow activists until the end.
Speaking in the 2008 documentary Salute, directed by his nephew Matt Norman, Peter Norman said:
I couldn’t see why a black man couldn’t drink the same water from a water fountain, take the same bus or go to the same school as a white man.
There was a social injustice that I couldn’t do anything for from where I was, but I certainly hated it. It has been said that sharing my silver medal with that incident on the victory dais detracted from my performance. On the contrary. I have to confess, I was rather proud to be part of it.
There have been calls for Norman to be included in the statue depicting Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the podium, located at San Jose State University. However, this was not something Norman wanted. Instead, as John Carlos explained to Democracy Now, Norman wanted his spot to be left empty, so others could stand there and have their picture taken with Carlos and Smith, standing in solidarity with them just as he did.
Norman’s part in the story, and the sacrifices he made to do the right thing, has often been overlooked, despite him being in the famous photograph in question.
However, he remains a shining example of how to be a good ally, staying on the right side of history even though he knew it would forever impact his life and career.
The three men were bonded for life through their shared experiences. When Norman died suddenly in 2006 at the age of just 64, Smith and Carlos attended his funeral as pallbearers, giving heartfelt eulogies as they said a final farewell to their courageous friend.
It took until 2012 for the Australian House of Representatives to make a posthumous apology to Norman, stating the government ‘belatedly recognises the powerful role that Peter Norman played in furthering racial equality’, while apologising for excluding him from subsequent Olympics, and acknowledging ‘the bravery of Peter Norman in donning an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge on the podium, in solidarity with African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos’.
If you have a story you want to tell, send it to UNILAD via [email protected]
Most Read StoriesMost Read
CreditsLa Repubblica and 6 others
TIME-LIFE The Olympics: Moments That Changed History
The Sydney Morning Herald
Films For Action