Italy in the late ‘60s was a 99.9% white insular Catholic country, the only exposure to Black people was limited to a few Black soccer players peppering the richest teams in the league.
Black Brazilians with exotic names like Jair, Amarildo, and Nene. Fantastic athletes, untouchable gods.
In those days America was the gold standard. We were taught that America was, and it was, the liberator who had saved us from the scourge and horrors of Nazism and that it was the dreamland of milk and honey.
We believed its streets were covered with gold and could do no wrong. We really didn't know anything about its past or present. They were just better than us or anybody else. I was just a repressed ignorant scared gay boy. Until the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games opened my eyes and changed my world forever.
Sports were my escape and I was glued to the then still black and white screen watching athletes from all over the world competing in a great variety of categories, always rooting for the Italians, but amazed by all. And then something extraordinary and unexpected happened. A game-changer that forever took my life to a different level. A milestone of cosmic proportion. Something that taught me and inspired me to look at life and my life in a different way.
During their medal ceremony in the Olympic Stadium in Mexico City on October 16, 1968, two African-American athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, each raised a black-gloved fist during the playing of the U.S. national anthem. While on the podium, Smith and Carlos, who had won gold and bronze medals respectively in the 200-meter running event, turned to face the U.S. flag and then kept their hands raised until the anthem had finished. In addition, Smith, Carlos, and Australian silver medalist Peter Norman all wore human rights badges on their jackets.
The two U.S. athletes received their medals shoeless, but wearing black socks, to represent Black poverty. Smith wore a black scarf around his neck to represent Black pride, Carlos had his tracksuit top unzipped to show solidarity with all-blue-collar workers in the U.S. and wore a necklace of beads which he described "were for those individuals that were lynched, or killed and that no-one said a prayer for, that were hung and tarred.”
Smith and Carlos delivered the salute with heads bowed, a gesture which became front-page news around the world. As they left the podium they were booed by the crowd.
Smith later said, "If I win, I am American, not a Black American. But if I did something bad, then they would say I am a Negro. We are Black and we are proud of being Black. Black America will understand what we did tonight."
And even though I knew nothing of the Black American experience I somehow felt I related to them and they were also speaking to me, telling me not to be afraid anymore and to stand up for myself. I still have the famous picture of the event taken by photographer John Dominis.
Smith and Carlos were largely ostracized by the U.S. sporting establishment and they were subject to criticism. Both Smith and Carlos were subject to abuse, ostracized by white America, and they and their families received death threats.
I had never seen anything like that or completely understood what it meant at that moment but somehow I knew that it was a courageous, inspirational gesture with great consequences.
I will always be grateful to them. People can change the world for the better and many pay a high price for doing it, and we are still at it, we don't' have to go back in history by much as we all witnessed the controversy surrounding Colin Kaepernick when he took a knee during the national anthem to draw attention to the treatment of African Americans.
Colin Kaepernick sacrificed his career for what he believed back in 2017 with a gesture that today has become the symbol of respect for the lives of the oppressed.
History and life are a spider's web in which one never knows when certain threads cross and become entangled together to form the destiny of people and even of a country's history.
Pier Angelo was born in Italy, moved to England at the age of 17 and learned English at the Nelson School of English. He attended college and graduate school in Manhattan. In 2009 he founded SFGN with Norm Kent. Now he’s retired with his husband Tom and his Affenpinscher Cabbage. He still enjoys writing his column Off The Wall for SFGN.