Profiles In Courage

I just finished watching a bit of the ESPYS on, duh, ESPN. The original aired sometime in June I believe, but this was the first time I had seen or heard that it was on. Normally I wouldn’t stop to watch the ESPYS unless some little tennis or volleyball hottie was taking the stage to accept some award with a slit in her dress all the way up to her armpit. But I had just rolled out of bed and was less concerned with content and more concerned with breakfast.

Now for those of you who may be unfamiliar with the ESPYS, they are the athletes equivalent of the Emmys or Oscars. Awards/ESPYS are given for individual or team performance throughout the previous year. And to make it even more akin to entertainment award shows, for some reason celebrities are in abundance at this thing, and heavily participate. I.E. Justin Timberlake was co-hosting.

What??? Did he play a jockey once?

Anyways, Venus Williams was the first to take the stage. Definitely not the hottie I was looking for, but attractive in her own right. With bowl of cornflakes and piping hot cup of coffee in front of me I decided to release the remote from hand, feeling more the need to keep a good cadence going with spoon to mouth than finger to channel changer.

Crunch, crunch, slurp. Wasn’t really paying attention.

After a commercial break Samuel L. Jackson came on stage with the strange-looking, NBA great, Steve Nash. They were there to present the Arthur Ashe Award for the athlete who had transcended their sport with unmatched bravery and courage. This award is not usually handed out to a current athlete since demonstrated bravery and courage tends not to be a dime a dozen display. So for this year’s award they went back four decades to the 1968 Olympics.

Samuel L. Jackson started his speech looking all dapper, Nash looking all weird. A huge picture of the two African American athletes with their fists raised atop the podium, and a nervous looking white guy in front of the them, was displayed above Jackson and Nash’s heads.

I think we are all rather familiar with this famous photograph, right? Tommie Smith and John (shouldn’t it be Juan) Carlos were the Gold and Bronze 200 meter medalists who courageously raised their fists in symbolic gesture for black pride.

I think it is hard for my generation, if I may speak on behalf of ‘my’ generation….ahem…. to truly appreciate the courage and strength to do what those two individuals did. By today’s standard, two black guys making a bold statement is not only unsurprising, it’s expected. Christ, look at the touchdown dances, or the anger-management Kanye West publicly saying that George Bush hates black people. Us whiteys don’t flinch at this anymore. In many respects we’re envious. If I may speak on behalf of the whiteys. Oh, and not so much envious of Kanye, as his bank account.

But times were unbelievably different back in 1968.

And hearing more about the specifics of this event was down right moving. Sniff sniff. I diluted my coffee a bit.

What I didn’t know about this event…

First off, what I thought I knew about this event…

Wait, first off, this segment was narrated by Tom Cruise.

Yeah, that makes sense. I had no expectations with this auspicious beginning…

So back to my other first off…

What I thought I knew about this event…

First off the Black Panthers were very active during this time period. I’m not going to attempt to give a flawed history lesson right now, but there was a sort of rift or option if you will, for the black community to embrace, if they chose to be active. Either protest non-violently via the direction of Martin Luther King, OR more the ‘I’m grabbin’ a gun mother fucker and defending what’s mine against them white devils’/ Malcolm X/Stokely Carmichael style. Boldness and aggressiveness in a style that is definitely more relatable to today’s black man and black woman. A style, if I may throw in my two cents, is one that I not only respect, but support. ‘Cause fuck you white devils ;)

So, when I have looked at this photo in the past, I’ve always assumed (assumed translates to ‘making an ass out of you and med’) that these athletes afterwards strutted off, picked out their ‘fros, slapped each other high fives and headed to the back of the Olympic bus (by choice…owning the rear seats….a predecessor to owning the ‘N’ word) and lit up a blunt with sunglasses on, with a chorus of “that’s right, that’s right” being chanted by the other black athletes.

That’s what I assumed, you know. That they made a bold visual move, but were embraced by their insular support group.

But the reality was far different. And that was what was so moving in hearing the full story. Thankfully Tom Cruise played a minor part in the narration.

The real story…

Previous to the fist display, a week or so had gone by and the black athletes were all sitting on their hands waiting to see if anyone would make a speech or do anything to show support for what was going on in America at the time in regards to race. Bold actions and statements in relations to race were beginning to take place all over, but had yet to ripple out to a forum like the Olympic Games.

A week into it and nobody did anything. No words to the press. Nothing.

At the time black athletes were still very much enmeshed in the white culture. So taking and making a stand would have been very jarring and disruptive to what been. What had always been. White control.

But seven or so days into it, Smith and Carlos interrupted the silence.

First they took to the podium in bare feet to symbolize the poverty of their youth growing up in black America.

Drip drip into my cereal.

Keep in mind that these were young athletes, not radical leaders. They looked scared and totally vulnerable, but went ahead with it anyways with the entire world watching.


And then with the raising of the flag and the booming of the National Anthem, they dropped their heads and raised their fists in solidarity. In essence, throwing their stones (if you will) into the giant pond of world athletics, further disturbing the established order and allowing the ripples to continue on outwards.

Unbelievably moving. And unbelievably courageous.

Because again, it’s context. A context I didn’t know until this morning. I didn’t understand from a dated photograph how courageous and bold that move was.

I also didn’t know that these two athletes didn’t head to the back of the bus to light up and await their impending sex with the luscious sisters that evening.

They were kicked out of the Olympics on the spot and sent home.

Didn’t know that.

Also didn’t know that upon returning home they were severely harassed for years resulting, directly or indirectly, in the dissollution of their marriages, jobs, etc.

Drip drip.

I didn’t know.

And then today (for me at least) these two guys took the stage to receive the Arthur Ashe Award at the ESPYS. And to see all the African American athletes in the audience choked up, standing, shedding tears, and embracing…well it was pretty damn cool. Not to mention that both these men made very moving speeches.

It was a good way to wake up today.

1968. Only forty years ago. And being a kid, in which I clearly can remember and feel, it was only (may I be so bold…insert drum riff) ten years before that event. I think part of getting older is realizing how fresh and unbelievably recent U.S. history really is. I think we only gain that perspective by adding a few decades onto our lives. This event in 1968, just happened, though as a kid it always felt like I was looking at a photo from the Civil War.

Anyways, if you stumble across a replay of the EPSYS with a mouthful of cornflakes and cup full of coffee, let ‘er rest on this channel a bit and see if you are fortunate enough to watch what I just watched.

You wont regret it.

Unless you’re a racist asshole of course. If so, try Channel 68. I do believe there is a Dukes Of Hazard marathon still going on. Yee haw!


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