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The 1968 moment 2 Olympians raised their black-gloved fists on stage | Breaking Barriers

Tommie Smith and John Carlos used their platform to shine a spotlight on civil rights issues in 1968.

MEXICO CITY, Mexico — A moment remembered as one of the most overtly political and powerful statements happened on an Olympic stage in Mexico City more than five decades ago.

On Oct. 16, 1968, American Tommie Smith had just won the 200 meter race with a world-record time. Fellow American John Carlos finished third. It was a historic day that was just getting started. 

The games were taking place only months after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 

King was was shot and killed while standing on a balcony at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn. in April of that year. Vietnam war protests were also picking up. 

Both Smith and Carlos wanted to use their platform to shine a spotlight on civil rights issues.

The two went to the podium shoeless, wearing black socks to represent Black poverty, wore beads to protest lynchings, and as the Star-Spangled Banner played, each raised a black-gloved fist to show support to Black people and oppressed people around the world.  

Credit: AP
FILE - In this Oct. 16, 1968, file photo, U.S. athletes Tommie Smith, center, and John Carlos extend gloved hands skyward in racial protest during the playing of national anthem after Smith received the gold and Carlos the bronze for the 200 meter run at the Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City. Australian silver medalist Peter Norman is at left. The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee will allow raised fists and kneeling during the national anthem at upcoming Olympic trials. The USOPC released a nine-page document to offer guidance about the sort of “racial and social demonstrations” that will and won't be allowed by the hundreds of athletes who will compete for spots on the U.S. team in various sports. (AP Photo/File)

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The reaction was swift and ugly. The pair were booed when the anthem ended and the International Olympic Committee president sent them home, saying they "breached the fundamental principles of the Olympic spirit." 

Back home, the pair faced abuse – even death threats. The action led to their athletic careers essentially ending. 

The third man on the podium, Australian Peter Norman, wore a badge in support of Smith and Carlos. He also faced severe scrutiny when he returned to his home. He never competed in an Olympics again. When he died in 2006,  both Smith and Carlos were pallbearers in the funeral

Smith is now a public speaker and Carlos is a retired track coach. Now in their mid 70s, both remain committed to raising awareness to human rights issues and helping others break barriers.