In the Olympics in Mexico City in 1968, African American runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos won the gold and the bronze medals in the 200 meter dash. When they stood on the podium during the playing of the national anthem, they bowed their heads and raised a black gloved fist in protest against racial oppression in the US. They were stripped of their medals and sent home where they received numerous death threats and were hounded by the press. But the signal of a single raised fist, which came to be known as the Black Power salute, is still used as a sign of solidarity by Black men in America up until today.

In the 1936 Olympics held in Berlin on the eve of World War II, African American Jesse Owens won the 100 meter dash beating out the German champion runner, Lutz Long. Hitler was so embarrassed that he refused, as was the custom, to present Owens with his medal. Nonetheless, Long put his arm around his shoulders and the two men walked off the field together. At the time Jesse Owens was hailed as a hero by the American government and the press. However, this fame was short lived, and he returned to the poverty and racism of pre-war America. Unable to find work, he ended his career in a carnival racing against horses.

Two years later heavyweight boxer Joe Louis beat the German champion Max Schmeling in another blow to supposed German racial superiority. During the war Louis abandoned his career as heavyweight boxing champion to join the US army and stage numerous exhibition bouts to raise money for the American war effort. He was widely hailed by the American government and the media. However, years after his career ended he was mercilessly hounded for payment of back taxes. To pay off these debts he became a professional wrestler and was badly injured in the ring.

Muhammad Ali won the light heavyweight championship in the Olympic games in 1960. He went on to become the heavyweight champion. When drafted to the army during the Viet Nam War, Ali refused to go on the grounds that the people of Viet Nam had never done him any harm whereas the United States government had long oppressed his people. He was stripped of his title and threatened with jail. He stuck to his guns and fought back in the courts. The US Supreme Court eventually sided with him and he went on to win back his title in dramatic fashion in the ring. To this day he remains a symbol of the indomitable spirit of the African American athlete as do all of these men.

( by Dr. Arthur Lewin, author of Africa Is Not A Country: It’s A Continent, )