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The story of the black power salute for Black History Month UK

Black Power Salute

Athletes at the Mexico Olympics
Mexico, 1968

At the 1968 Mexico Olympics, two US athletes gave the Black Power Salute.

Today it is remembered as an iconic moment in the Civil Rights movement. In 1968, it caused controversy around the world.

Schools World Service tells the story of the black power salute with athlete Tommie Smith, and meets young people in his youth sport programme in Oakland, California.


Young athlete at training
Teenage athlete Taleya from Oakland, California

Taleya is a cheerleader. She cheerleads for her school's Basketball and Football teams.

She has been doing this since she was 11 years old. Now in her final year of High School in Oakland California, she regularly loses her voice for the schools teams the warriors.

But Taleya also has time for her school work but her studies have often been disrupted by family problems.

This has meant she has had to move around, living at her grandmother's house and with her two sisters all in the space of a few years.

Oakland, California

In California there is a striking gap between rich and poor.

For families living on the poverty there is less access to education, healthcare and even basics like sports facilities and fresh food.

Sometimes the lines are drawn around race, with more black families than white categorised as low income.

Almost a third of teenagers in Oakland, like Taleya, are classed as poor.

Sport for success
On the right track
Teenagers sprinting on athletics tracks
I want to go to the University of California and continue to run track and major in business and accountancy. Just be successful in life.
Taleya, age 16

Taleya hopes to improve her chances in life by attending the Tommie Smith Youth Movement.

She competes in the 100m, the 200m and the 4x100m relay.

The relay is Taleya's favourite event.

Her times are good and she is hopeful of competing at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil.

Taleya hopes athletics will also help her to get a university place.

"By running track, it kind of helped me focus and it helped me focus at school too," she says. "I have something to look forward to."

Coach Nola

Running to an Olympic standard requires discipline, something Taleya's coach says she's struggled with.

"Every year she would quit at some point, I've had to kick her off the team, we've gone through years of this," says Coach Nola.

"This season was the first she's made it through to the end of the season."

Without her own mother at home, Nola has become a real rock for Taleya. "I can talk to her about anything whether it's about life, school, boys, track, anything," says Taleya.

Tommie Smith

Tommie Smith
Tommie Smith next to a statue commemorating the black power salute
It was a silent prayer for this country

A world record holder in the 200 metres, Tommie Smith powered his way to victory at the Mexico Olympics in 1968.

But its not the gold medal he's remembered for. It's his fist.

When Tommie stepped on to the podium to receive his medal., he and his team mate John Carlos each raised an arm.

It's known as the black power salute.

Tommie also took his shoes off. "The shoes were to represent poverty," says Tommie. "Because of the poverty in our country. The poverty around the world in fact."

America in the 1960's

Racism in America was common place and black people didn't have equal voting or housing rights.

During the 1960s and 70s, Americans campaigned to change the law through the Civil Rights movement.

The black power salute

In October 1968, the black power salute caused an outcry because the Olympic Games are supposed to be about sport, not politics or protest. The two US athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos were kicked off the Olympic team and sent home from Mexico City.

Kip Keino is one of Kenya's most famous athletes. He won gold in the 1500 metres at the 1968 Mexico Olympics.

Kip, now head of Kenya's Olympic Commitee, doesn't agree with what Tommie did. "Problems at home should not be brought to the games," he says.

At the time, there was a backlash against the athletes involved. "When we came back home, we couldn't find a job, we couldn't do anything," says Tommie. "Our lives were threatened. Our wives were threatened."

The black power salute statue
The statue of the black power salute

In 2005, a 22 foot high statue was built in Tommie and John's honour at San Jose State University. Tommie says that the face is very difficult for him to look at. It reminds him of a time of turmoil in his life when he had very little backing.

The laws in America were changed although it takes longer for people to change. Today, Americans from every background have equal rights.

Schools World Service is a BBC British Council co-production

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see also
SWS Cairo
04 May 11 |  World Olympic Dreams
SWS Ecuador
14 Jun 11 |  World Olympic Dreams
SWS Jemma's Special Journey
19 Jul 11 |  World Olympic Dreams

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