1968 Olympics Black Power Salute

Black Power Salute (Dominis, 1968)

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Photograph Description and Context

The picture is a black and white photo that was taken at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Two Olympics sprinters stood atop the podium wearing the gold and bronze medals. Their names are Tommie Smith and John Carlos. They are shown holding their first in the air as an expression of solidarity with the . It is argued that they are expressing their disillusionment with a nation that so often fell behind, and still does, relative to racial equality (Dominis, 1968).

The two individuals received significant negative reaction to their expression. For example, they were suspended from the U.S. Track team. They were vilified at home and they even later received death threats for their public display. Yet, the picture has become one of the iconic photographs from this period that deals with racial inequality in the United States. This analysis will provide an overview of the environment in which this famous iconic picture was taken as well as discuss the photos significance within this framework.

Racism has been one of the defining features of the United States ever since the country was founded and racial inequality has long been an issue in the American society. Despite making substantial progress in creating a more racially equal society, there are still many issues involving race and discrimination that can be found today. Some of the most fundamental problems that minorities still face today in the United States deal primarily with finding equal opportunity in the workplace and in society in general. Because minorities are not able to find equal employment opportunities, even today, there are a number of subsidiary consequences. However, the problem cannot be isolated to economic explanations alone. On July 16th, 2009, Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. of Harvard University returned to his home after a trip in Africa only to find that he had misplaced the key to his home in Cambridge, MA (Staples, 2009). Despite Dr. Gates Jr. being a successful and respected member of his community, he was still treated as a criminal on the basis of his skin color. Such examples illustrate how race affects individuals in society today. The also was a response to such issues. Yet these issues were even more pressing in the 1960s and 1970s.

History of Discrimination

The first attempt to integrate African-Americans into American society was arguably the Reconstruction Period. Despite the initial goals of the legislative acts, African-Americans faced a significant antagonism from many whites in the south who did not agree to the new freedoms for the former slaves. The first and arguably most significant step move towards a more equal and free society was the 13th amendment to the Constitution. The underlying purpose of 13th and 14th amendments as well as the civil rights act of 1866 was to officially designate African-Americans citizens by abolishing slavery and granting new freedoms for the former slaves. However, these laws were more symbolic than actually improving the quality of life of African-Americans.

Democrats responded with a growing trend of Jim Crow laws in 1877 which were crafted to segregate the blacks so that they would have limited interaction with whites. In 1909 there the practice of lynching in many mostly southern states led to the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The NAACP’s chief objective is to ensure the political, educational, social and economic equality of minority group citizens of United States and eliminate race prejudice. The NAACP works to attempt to remove all of the barriers of racial discrimination that surface through the democratic processes.

Another important figure in the civil rights moments was Dr. , a Baptist minister, who became an icon for civil rights across America. The importance of Martin Luther King’s role in achieving civil rights could not be understated. It was MLK’s eloquence and conviction of speech as well as his moral voice that served as a rallying point for millions of sympathetic individuals to protest racial injustices. However, in this same environment there were others that were not as dedicated to the non-violent approach as Dr. Martin Luther King.

The Black Power movement rose to popularity in the 1960s and was associated with different political movements. Many individuals saw the work of Dr. Martin Luther King and the resistance he faced in the American society and proposed a different set of tactics. The Black Power movement represented diverse groups however; many of which had different political ambitions. For example, the Black Panthers organization advocated that use of violence to gain equality for African-Americans while most other groups that organized under Black Power were not as aggressive. Many of the leaders of the mainstream civil rights movements viewed these groups as counterproductive because they had an even further divisive effect on the American population.


The picture of the Olympic athletes on the podium after winning their medals was a strong political statement. These athletes knew the kind of retaliation that they would likely experience from this expression. It was also a statement that Black men also had a lot of power and these Black athletes completely represented this fact. The two men had just won a Gold and Bronze medal in the Olympics, yet there were many things that they could not do in their home country simply for the fact that they were black. Thus, these men were athletically superior to their fellow competitors on one hand, yet they were perceived as inferior on many levels at home based on their skin color.

The two athletes simply raised their fists to draw attention to this fact at a critical moment in history. The act is self was rather simple — all they did was raise their fists. However, it had profound implications from the perspective of the society. They were pointing out that they were equal, or even superior, in many ways. This is likely why the simple act was met with such violent opposition — even death threats. The individuals were drawing attention to the situation all black men found themselves in as well as disobeying orders for them not to draw attention to themselves by their Olympic team. The fact that they made a political expression in the Olympic Games got them kicked off the team. However, they were standing in solidarity with the plight of so many African-Americans and their contribution was indispensable in illustrating the inequality that was present in the country and placed this fact in front of the world’s attention. This controversial image was caught by John Domini’s camera and will forever be a part of U.S. history.


Dominis, J. (1968). John Dominis Collection. Retrieved from Photographers Gallery: http://www.photographersgallery.com/photo.asp?id=4037

Staples, R. (2009). White Power, Black Crime, and Racial Politics. The Black Scholar, 31-41.