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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 eleven year old Jashaun who attends the Tommie Smith Youth Movement in Oakland, California.

Race for success

On Saturdays at McClymonds High School, children and teenagers from Oakland in California can take part in sport.
The Tommie Smith Youth Movement uses the school grounds but it isn't part of school. Jashaun from Westlake Junior High has been going for the past two years.

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

Tommie Smith started running when he was around 9 years old.
He used to race his older sister who he says was the fastest child in his school. And one day he beat her.

Tommie was a world record holder in the 200 metres. He powered his way to victory at the Mexico Olympics in 1968 but it's 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 teammate John Carlos each raised an arm. It's known as the black power salute, they did it to draw attention to racism in America. They wanted equal rights for black people.

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


But the black power salute caused an outcry because the Olympic Games is supposed to be about sport, not politics or protest. Some people had thought Tommie and John had broken the rules. The international Olympic Committee were so angry they sent Tommie and John home. Eventually the laws in America were changed and black people did get equal rights. 40 years later, Tommie is a role model.

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

A statue was built to celebrate Tommie and John's salute in 2005 at San Jose State University.

It's 22 feet high. But Tommie says it makes him feel uncomfortable.

"The face is very difficult for me to look at because it reminds me of a kid, 43 years ago in turmoil because I had very little backing." he said.

One person receiving backing from Tommie's youth sports group is 11 year old Jashaun.

Jashaun is trying to improve his health and fitness because he plays too many video games. This is something he and his sister love to do. But Jashaun has developed a weight problem.

"When I was younger I was skinny and then I started slacking off and eating fast food" says Jashaun, "but now I'm trying to stop and go back to eating healthy."

Positive attitude through sport
On the right track
Teenagers sprinting on athletics tracks
I'm quite good at it but there's still a lot to learn
Jashaun, age 11

Jashaun's mum says since taking part in sport, she's noticed a change in his attitude. Jashaun has also agreed to keep his grades up in order to keep his place in the athletics group.

Hi mum says, "It's made him a more positive person to know you can be an athlete, you can be an African American young man and still do what you need to do and not have to have negative enforcement in order to be in the limelight."

Jashaun goes to this middle school in Oakland. At school, his favourite subject is Maths, but on the athletics field he likes discus best.

"I like twirling around. I like being able to just throw the disc," says Jashaun. "I'm quite good at it but there's still much that I have to learn."

Family backing

Jashaun's life hasn't always been easy but with the help of his family, he's trying to be a strong person.

He says: "My family is one of the most important things to me. Whenever I need something, my mum's there. Whenever I don't have something, my mum's there."

Role Model

Because Jashaun's Dad isn't around, having a man like Tommy he can look up to makes a real difference.

"First time I met him, I was shy to walk up to him and ask him to sign my track shoes," says Jashaun.

Tommie Smith says there is more to coaching than just what happens on the track and it is away from the discus where Jay needs to develop.

Tommie says: "Jashaun does have potential, we just have to teach him socially things that way he can incorporate them in his athletic approach, his athletic ability."

Jashaun is positive about the future.

"I like to either do basketball or football," he says. "I would want to be a lawyer or a really big business man. As long as I try my best I think I will make it somewhere."

The present day

African American's like Tommy fought hard for equal rights throughout the 1960's and 70's.

Although the laws have changed, it took time for people's attitudes to change and accept that everyone has rights, whatever their background.

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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