Tommie Smith and John Carlos raise their fists at the 1968 Olympics

American runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos ascend the podium to receive the gold and bronze medals for the men’s 200-meter race at the Mexico City Olympics on October 16, 1968. Once their medals have been placed around their necks, as the American flag is raised and “The Star-Spangled Banner” begins to play over the loudspeakers, Smith and Jones each raise a fist in the Black Power salute, one of the most famous moments of political speech in the history of the Olympics, and of American sport.

The photo of Smith and Carlos with their fists raised on the podium caused a media sensation and remains one of the most iconic images of 20th century sports. But far from a singular incident, their protest was one of a series of antiracist actions undertaken by Black athletes that year. Smith and Carlos were both active in the Olympic Project for Human Rights, a program of boycotts and protests that was largely the brainchild of San Jose State sociologist Dr. Harry Edwards. The OPHR sought to use sports, specifically the Olympics and related events, to expose the myriad ways in which Black athletes were exploited and mistreated.

Formed by Edwards and a group of college athletes, many of whom were in contention for the next summer’s Olympics, the OPHR first made headlines when Black football players at San Jose State threatened not to play the opening game of the season unless the school addressed the systemic racism that Black students faced on campus and in the community. SJSU’s president preemptively cancelled the game, but quickly acceded to many of the players’ demands. Just a few months later, in February of 1968, OPHR members led by Smith and sprinter Lee Evans launched a boycott of the New York Athletic Club’s annual indoor track meet that included over 100 Black athletes, including many future Olympians. The boycott of NYAC, which barred Puerto Ricans, Jews and African Americans from membership, drew further media attention to the OPHR’s cause and led to large protests outside of Madison Square Garden, where the meet was held.

OPHR’s original goal was a Black boycott of the Olympics themselves. Among other institutional issues, activists pointed to the overt anti-Semitism of Avery Brundage, president of the International Olympic Committee, and his attempt to bring apartheid South Africa to the games, which drew threats of a boycott from Black athletes and African nations. Still, many athletes felt they simply could not pass up the opportunity to compete at the Olympics.

The 1968 Olympics were destined to be politically charged, beginning just a few months after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and immediately preceded by a horrendous massacre of hundreds student activists—the exact number remains unknown—by the Mexican government in Tlatelolco Plaza. Against this backdrop, and after a year of strident athlete activism and some progress, Smith and Carlos felt compelled to raise their fists on the podium. Carlos wore black socks with no shoes in recognition of Black poverty, and a beaded necklace to protest lynching. He and Smith shared a pair of black gloves (hence Smith raised his right hand, Carlos his left) while Peter Norman, the Australian who had taken silver, wore an OPHR pin in solidarity with them. Smith and Carlos’ actions were met with boos, and they were vilified by the American press—broadcaster Brent Musburger, then a writer for the Chicago American, called them “a couple of black-skinned storm troopers”—as well as the IOC, which expelled them from the Games.

Smith and Carlos went on to successful careers as athletes and speakers, and continued their activism. “It was a cry for freedom and for human rights,” Smith later said of the protest. “We had to be seen because we couldn’t be heard.”

READ MORE: Why Black American Athletes Raised Their Fists at the 1968 Olympics

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“Solidarity Day” rally at Resurrection City

On June 19, 1968, a long-term anti-poverty demonstration known as Resurrection City reaches its high-water mark. On “Solidarity Day,” over 50,000 people flock to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. to protest, sing, hear speeches and demonstrate on behalf of national legislation to address the plight of the American poor. “Today is really only the beginning,” Rev. Ralph Abernathy tells the crowd. “We will not give up the battle until the Congress of the United States decides to open the doors of America and allow the nation’s poor to enter as full-fledged citizens into this land of wealth and opportunity.”

In May 1968, poor people from all over the country came to the National Mall and made temporary homes in plywood shelters, creating a settlement they called Resurrection City. The protest began less than two months after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and grew out of the Poor People’s Campaign and the campaign for an Economic Bill of Rights, both of which had been major focuses of King’s at the time of his death. The goal was to convince legislators of the need for laws that would lift poor people of all races out of poverty, and to sway public opinion by making the plight of the poor impossible to ignore. Protesters came from all over the country—“caravans” drove from as far away as Los Angeles and Seattle while a “Freedom Train” brought people from Memphis and one group from Marks, Mississippi rode mule-drawn wagons.

READ MORE: When Protesters Occupied D.C. for Six Weeks to Demand Economic Justice

Marches and demonstrations took place in Washington as more and more activists arrived throughout May, including a Mother’s Day march organized by the National Welfare Rights Organization and led by Coretta Scott King. Ethel Kennedy, wife of Sen. Robert Kennedy, was involved with the demonstrations, and his funeral procession stopped at Resurrection City on June 8, following his assassination on June 5. Businesses, schools and other fixtures of normal life flourished within the settlement, which also saw conflicts stemming from animosities between different groups living there, leadership disputes and the inherent uncertainty of living in makeshift dwellings on the National Mall. During this time, leaders of the movement met and testified before members of Congress. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, dubbed the “mayor” of Resurrection City, sought to lift spirits with his sermons, one of which became famous for the chant of “I am somebody!” which temporarily re-energized the protesters. The original permit issued by the National Parks Service expired a few days before Solidarity Day, but it was extended by four days.

After being moved due to an internal conflict among organizers, Solidarity Day took place on Juneteenth and was attended by over 50,000 people. Abernathy and Coretta Scott King spoke, along with leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Native American activist Martha Grass, the president of the United Auto Workers (80 busloads of UAW members were in attendance) and Democratic presidential hopefuls Eugene McCarthy and Hubert Humphrey.

The day may well have gone down as a powerful and peaceful day of activism on par with the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, but the conclusion to the story of Resurrection City was far less inspiring. Allegedly in response to rocks thrown at them from the camp, and with the Parks Service permit expiring, the police moved to evict residents on June 23, firing tear gas into Resurrection City and rounding up its occupants for arrest. One SCLC leader remembered the eviction as “worse than anything I saw in Mississippi or Alabama.”

Today, Solidarity Day and Resurrection City are footnotes in the overall story of the civil rights movement, overshadowed by earlier, more successful protests and by the violence and conflict that defined 1968. At the time, however, the settlement by the Reflecting Pool was impossible to ignore—particularly for lawmakers and residents of Washington, D.C.—and regardless of its failure to achieve sweeping social change or anti-poverty legislation, it remains one of the largest and most sustained social justice protests in the history of the United States.

READ MORE: Civil Rights Movement Timeline

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First episode of “60 Minutes” airs

On September 24, 1968, CBS airs the first episode of 60 Minutes, a show that would become a staple of the American media landscape. A pioneer of the “newsmagazine” format, 60 Minutes is the longest-running primetime show in American television history.

The show was similar in tone and style to W5, a Canadian current affairs program considered one of the first newsmagazine shows. 60 Minutes intentionally portrayed itself as a magazine, with “cover” graphics and a variety of content that ranged from straightforward investigative reporting to editorials to more lighthearted commentary. Its first episode, aired on September 24, 1968, featured coverage of the Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey presidential campaigns, commentary from various writers and journalists, an interview with the Attorney General, part of an Oscar-winning short film, and even a high-minded discussion between the hosts on the nature of reality. 

Over its run, 60 Minutes has been known primarily for investigative journalism—termed “gotcha” journalism by some critics—including exposés on the Vietnam War, the Watergate Scandal, the Abu Ghraib torture revelations and other corporate and political scandals. The “Point/Counterpoint,” segment, which featured two commentators giving the liberal and conservative sides of various arguments, was a 60 Minutes innovation that launched a slew of imitators and spoofs.

While the show has received criticism throughout its history for segments that contained incomplete or false reporting, it has remained the premier newsmagazine program in the country. A number of famous journalists and pundits, including Mike Wallace, Dan Rather, Diane Sawyer, Leslie Stahl, Walter Cronkite and Christiane Amanpour have contributed to the show, which has won over a hundred Emmy Awards and 20 Peabodys.

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First 9-1-1 call is placed in the United States


Year
1968
Month Day
February 16

February 16, 1968 sees the first official “911” call placed in the United States. Now taken for granted as first course of action in the event of emergency by nearly all of the nation’s 327 million people, 911 is a relatively recent invention and was still not standard across the United States for many years after its adoption by Congress.

As telephones became common in U.S. households, fire departments around the country recommended establishing a single, simple number to be dialed in the event of a fire or other emergency. A similar system had been implemented in the United Kingdom decades earlier, in 1936, when the code 999 was chosen for emergency telegraph and phone communications. The Federal Communications Commission decided to act in 1967, but the number itself came not from the government but from AT&T, the corporation that controlled nearly all phone lines in the U.S. via its long-distance service and ownership of local Bell Telephone subsidiaries. At the time, AT&T was considered a “natural monopoly,” a monopoly allowed to exist because high infrastructure costs and barriers to entry prevented challengers from emerging. AT&T suggested the number 911 because it was easy to remember and, crucially, had not yet been designated as an area code or other code, which would make the transition easier.

The first 911 call was placed by Rep. Rankin Fite, the Speaker of the Alabama House of Representatives, in the town of Haleyville, AL on February 16th of the following year. Nome, Alaska adopted the system a week later. Still, it would years before the system was widespread and decades before it was uniform. It was only in 1973 that the White House issued an official statement in favor of 911, and even that a suggestion rather than a law or executive order. By 1987, 50 percent of the nation was using the system. Canada chose to adopt the same number for its emergency calls, and 98% of the US and Canada can now contact emergency services by dialing 911. 999 is in use in a number of former British colonies, and the number 112 is used in Russia, Brazil, and other nations, even sometimes routing to the same services as 911 in the U.S.

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Three protestors die in the Orangeburg Massacre


Year
1968
Month Day
February 08

On the night of February 8, 1968, police officers in Orangeburg, South Carolina open fire on a crowd of young people during a protest against racial segregation, killing three and wounding around 30 others. The killing of three young African Americans by state officials, four years after racial discrimination had been outlawed by federal law, has gone down in history as the Orangeburg Massacre.

After decades of protests across the country, segregation was abolished in the United States by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. While its passage was a major victory, many racists throughout the South simply refused to obey it, knowing local police would not care to enforce. In early February of 1968, a group of activists in Orangeburg tried to convince one such man, Harry Floyd, to desegregate his bowling alley, but he refused. Several days of expanding protests followed, during which protesters damaged a window of the bowling alley, police responded with arrests and beatings, and unrest spread to the nearby campus of South Carolina State University, a historically black college.

The night of the 8th, officers of the South Carolina Highway Patrol responded to a bonfire on the campus. When a protester pried a banister from an abandoned house and threw it at an officer, the police opened fire. The Highway Patrol would subsequently claim, and newspapers would subsequently report, that the students had used firebombs and even sniper rifles to attack before the police fired; however, multiple investigations of the incident failed to turn up any evidence to support the claims. The police barrage claimed the lives of two SCSU students, Samuel Hammond, Jr. and Henry Smith, as well as a local high school student, Delano Middleton, who had been sitting near the protest waiting for his mother to get off work.

The killings sparked outrage across the nation, but the Governor of South Carolina blamed “black power advocates” rather than his police. The massacre is still commemorated by the university and others in South Carolina, but social commentators have noted that its place in America’s collective memory is not as prominent that of the similar Kent State and Jackson State Massacres, both of which occurred during anti-Vietnam War protests and which collectively claimed the lives of six white students in 1970. Shootings on college and high school campuses continue to plague the United States, as does police violence against African Americans—nearly 1,000 people are killed by police every year, and black people are 2.5 times more likely to die at the hands of law enforcement than white people.

READ MORE: Segregation in the United States

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Viet Cong officer is shot in the head, iconic photo taken


Year
1968
Month Day
February 02

Saigon, South Vietnam was a chaotic and bloody place in the winter of 1968. On January 30, North Vietnamese forces struck suddenly and with shocking force at targets throughout the South, taking the South Vietnamese and their American allies by surprise and turning the tide of a war that President Lyndon Johnson had assured his people they were close to winning. As the reeling South Vietnamese army worked to re-establish order in their capital, an American photographer captured an image that would come to symbolize the brutality of the conflict.

The Tet Offensive directly countered the American narrative that the North was incapable of mobilizing in large numbers and was on the retreat. Conventional and guerrilla warriors struck targets and areas that had been considered to be safely under U.S./Southern control. As the Viet Cong overran Saigon in the first hours of the Tet Offensive, a fighter named Nguyễn Văn Lém was part of a death squad that targeted the National Police and their families. According to the South Vietnamese military, Lém’s squad had just killed 34 people associated with the police, at least 24 of whom were civilians, when he was captured on February 1st.

Lém, who had worn civilian clothes as he carried out his alleged war crimes, was brought to Brigadier General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan. Associated Press photographer Eddie Adams saw the prisoner being escorted to the general and decided to take a few pictures. “I prepared to make that picture—the threat, the interrogation,” Adams recalled. “But it didn’t happen. The man just pulled a pistol out of his holster, raised it to the VC’s head and shot him in the temple.”

Adams captured the exact moment when the bullet from Loan’s Smith & Wesson entered Lém’s head at point-blank range. The image, which very much appeared to depict the summary execution of an unarmed civilian by a South Vietnamese military official, ran in newspapers around the world, causing a sensation. The story behind the photo was much more complex, but the shot came to encapsulate Americans’ darkest fears about the war: that it was a haphazard, amoral bloodletting in which the United States’ cruelty rivaled that of its enemies.

Indeed, while Lém was not the innocent victim he appeared to be, it was later concluded that his execution had been a war crime. It was far from the only one committed by American and South Vietnamese forces—just a few months later, on March 16, American troops killed somewhere between 347 and 504 civilians in what came to be known as the My Lai Massacre. “Saigon Execution,” as Adams titled his photo, became a symbol of all that was wrong with American involvement in the war and won the Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography for 1969. Four years later, another AP photographer would win the prize for a similar photo, “Terror of War,” which depicted terrified children fleeing after the South Vietnamese air force mistakenly attacked their village with napalm.

READ MORE: Vietnam War Timeline

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Johnny Cash performs at Folsom Prison


Year
1968
Month Day
January 13

In the midst of depression and a steep decline in his musical career, legendary country singer Johnny Cash arrives to play for inmates at California’s Folsom Prison on January 13, 1968. The concert and the subsequent live album launched him back into the charts and re-defined his career.

Despite his outlaw image, Cash never went to prison, save for a few nights drying out in various jails. It was not his own experience but rather the crime film Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison that inspired him to pen “Folsom Prison Blues,” which was a modest hit for Cash in 1956. The song, characteristically mournful, is written from the point of view of an inmate “stuck in Folsom Prison” after shooting a man in Reno “just to watch him die” – Cash explained that he wanted to come up with the most senseless reason imaginable for the speaker to have committed murder. A decade later, Cash’s alcoholism and addiction to pills had taken a marked toll on his health. Cash was popular in prisons across America and was known to correspond with imprisoned fans, and first played at Folsom in 1966 on the suggestion of a local preacher. Two years later, needing something to jump-start his career, he convinced his record company to let him record a live album there.

Cash felt a personal responsibility to put on a good show at Folsom. He rehearsed feverishly in the days leading up to the concert and taught himself “Greystone Chapel,” a song written by Folsom inmate Glen Sherley. Despite the presence of armed guards on the walkways above them, and the warden’s prohibition against standing during the show, Cash’s audience was raucous, invigorating the performers and lending a unique verve to the live recording. Cash tailored the setlist to prisoners, including the namesake song and ending with “Greystone Chapel.” The album went to No. 1, as did a subsequent album recorded at San Quentin, and suddenly Cash was a household name again.

The iconic performance linked Cash permanently with prisoners in the American imagination. In his 1971 song “Man in Black,” Cash explains that he adopted his trademark dark clothing in solidarity with “the poor and the beaten down” as well as “the prisoner who has long paid for his crime.” Cash testified before Congress and met with President Richard Nixon to discuss prison reform in 1972, and continued to crusade on behalf of the imprisoned for the rest of his career. Live at Folsom Prison stands as a testament to the bond he felt with inmates as well as a major entry in the canon of 20th Century American music.

READ MORE: I Went With Johnny Cash to Folsom Prison

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Mass graves discovered in Hue


Year
1968
Month Day
February 26

Allied troops who had recaptured the imperial capital of Hue from the North Vietnamese during the Tet Offensive discover the first mass graves in Hue.

It was discovered that communist troops who had held the city for 25 days had massacred about 2,800 civilians whom they had identified as sympathizers with the government in Saigon. One authority estimated that communists might have killed as many as 5,700 people in Hue.

The Tet Offensive had begun at dawn on the first day of the Tet holiday truce (January 30), when Viet Cong forces, supported by large numbers of North Vietnamese troops, launched the largest and best coordinated offensive of the war. During the attack, they drove into the center of South Vietnam’s seven largest cities and attacked 30 provincial capitals ranging from the Delta to the DMZ. 

Among the cities taken during the first four days of the offensive were Hue, Dalat, Kontum, and Quang Tri; in the north, all five provincial capitals were overrun. At the same time, enemy forces shelled numerous allied airfields and bases. By February 10, the offensive was largely crushed, but resulted in heavy casualties on both sides.

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Dick Fosbury flops to an Olympic high jump record

Year
1968
Month Day
October 20

On October 20, 1968, 21-year-old Oregonian Dick Fosbury wins gold—and sets an Olympic record—when he high-jumps 7 feet 4 1/4 inches at the Mexico City Games. It was the first American victory in the event since 1956. It was also the international debut of Fosbury’s unique jumping style, known as the “Fosbury Flop.”

The Flop, according to one journalist, “looked like a guy falling off the back of a truck.” Instead of the traditional scissors- or straddle-style forward kick over the bar, it featured a midair rotation so that the jumper landed back-of-the-head-first on the mat. Fosbury described it this way: “I take off on my right, or outside, foot rather than my left foot. Then I turn my back to the bar, arch my back over the bar and then kick my legs out to clear the bar.” It looked odd, but it worked better than any other technique.

Fosbury had invented his Flop in high school, when he discovered that, though he was terrible at the scissors-kick, the straddle and the belly-roll, if he stretched out on his back and landed headfirst, he could jump higher than anyone on his high-school track team. “The advantage,” he said, “from a physics standpoint is, it allows the jumper to run at the bar with more speed and, with the arch in your back, you could actually clear the bar and keep your center of gravity at or below the bar, so it was much more efficient.” At Oregon State University, he used the Flop to win the 1968 NCAA title and the Olympic Trials.

“I think quite a few kids will begin trying it my way now,” he said when the Games were over. “I don’t guarantee my results, and I don’t recommend my style to anyone. All I say is if a kid can’t straddle, he can try it my way.” And indeed, kids everywhere began to practice the Flop over the backs of their sofas and into piles of leaves in the yard. Parents and coaches worried that Fosbury’s technique was dangerous—U.S. Olympic Coach Pat Jordan even warned that it would “wipe out an entire generation of high jumpers because they will all have broken necks”—but the Flop soon became standard practice at track meets. Within a decade, almost every elite high-jumper was doing it Fosbury’s way. 

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The first Miss Black America pageant takes place

Year
1968
Month Day
August 17

At nearly three in the morning, Saundra Williams walked across a stage with a cream rhinestone cape around her shoulders, a sash across her torso and a scepter in her hand, ready to be crowned as pageant royalty. Though it was the same night as the Miss America pageant, Williams’ crowning wasn’t just about beauty. It was about protest.

She was the first Miss Black America, and her message was clear: Black is beautiful, too. 

A year before Williams took the stage, J. Morris Anderson, a Philadelphia entrepreneur, asked his two young daughters what they wanted to be when they grew up. They gave an answer that most girls at the time would: they wanted to be Miss America. But he knew that the racist standards would keep them from even being considered for the crown. It was then that he decided to do something—to show his girls they could be Miss America, too.

Phillip H. Savage, then director of the Tri-State NAACP, helped the groundbreaking—but then taboo—pageant get national coverage. They decided to hold it the same night, and in the same city, as the Miss America pageant. They chose to start their so-called “positive protest” at midnight, in hopes that newsmen would drop by when they left Convention Hall after the conclusion of the other pageant.

The 19-year-old winner from Philadelphia grew up in a middle class home and said she never experienced racism until she went to college at Maryland State College. For the first time, she walked into a restaurant and was refused service. That’s when she became an activist in the Black Awareness Movement, leading a silent protest march to attempt to integrate that very same restaurant.

For talent, Williams performed a traditional African dance and, during the Question and Answer segment, she shocked the crowd by saying men and women should do equal housework because she thought “the male is getting awfully lazy.”

The men in the audience booed, but it wasn’t enough to cost her the crown, a trip to Puerto Rico, a modeling contract and a trophy.

Williams said being ordained with this crown was even better than winning Miss America. She wanted this to be the first of many positive messages to Black women.

“There is a need to keep saying this over and over because for so long none of us believed it,” she said. “But now we’re finally coming around.”

Sixteen years later, Vanessa Williams would be crowned Miss America. She was the first Black woman to win the honor. The Miss Black America pageant continues to this day.

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