Boycott Questions: 1968 vs. 2008
(Right: Spencer Haywood (8) leads way during U.S. gold-medal win at the 1968 Games, where there was a protest by black Americans but no boycott. Left: Smith, who won the 200-meter dash at the Olympic Games in Mexico City, along with bronze medalist and teammate John Carlos.)
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In 1968 I was a twenty-year-old college junior whose basketball success had been made famous. I’d been honored as Player of the Year, Most Outstanding Player in the NCAA Tournament, named the USBWA Player of the Year, and played the “game of the century” against the Houston Cougars at the Houston Astrodome. So it wasn’t surprising that I was invited to try out for the Olympic basketball team to represent the U.S. in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Any other year I would have been proud and elated at the prospect of playing for my country against the world’s elite athletes. But 1968 wasn’t like any other year.
The Vietnam War had divided the country more violently than any time since the Civil War. The nightly news clips of U.S. planes bombing the Vietnam jungle was paralleled by clips of angry, sometimes bloody, clashes between war protesters and war supporters. The Tet Offensive, in which 80,000 Viet Cong troops attacked 100 towns and cities in an effort to end the war, proved that the enemy was resourceful, resilient and in no mood to surrender. It also increased public opinion against the war. But the war wasn’t the only cause for all the social unrest and upheaval. It was more like a bright light that illuminated many other social ills that we’d all managed to ignore or, even worse, pretend didn’t exist.
Black soldiers stationed in Vietnam complained of ramant racism. When Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated that same year, some white soldiers flew Confederate flags outside their barracks. Some blacks tried to avoid the racism by requesting to serve in all-black units. One Air Force report confirmed what black soldiers already knew: “Unequal treatment is manifested in unequal punishment, offensive and inflammatory language, prejudice in assignments of details, lack of products for blacks at the PX, harassment by security police under orders to break up five or more blacks in a group and double standards in enforcement of regulation.” Military discrimination didn’t just result in hurt feelings, it could result in death: by 1966 over 20 percent of U.S. combat casualties in Vietnam were black, which was a much higher percentage than the total of blacks in the military.
As the racism became more evident, some black soldiers naturally questioned their loyalty. After all, the Vietnamese were people of color, subject to the same racial discrimination that they themselves were experiencing at the hands of whites. Muhammad Ali articulated this dilemma when he said, “No Viet Cong ever called me nigger.” And for refusing to register for the draft, even though he was guaranteed he wouldn’t see combat, he was stripped of his title and sentenced to five years in prison (later the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction). On the other hand, some blacks saw the war as an opportunity. “I thought the only way I could make it out of the ghetto,” confessed one black paratrooper, “was to be the best soldier I possibly could.” Although Vietnam veterans were often disappointed at the tepid reception they received upon their return home, black veterans were even more disillusioned because the injustices they had left to fight against were still alive and well. One black vet remembers coming home in 1968 and entering a restaurant in Virginia with some army pals that included two whites and three Hispanics. The waitress told them she would serve the whites, but not the others. “I think that going in a lot of us felt like things were going to be different,” the vet recalls. “And when we realized that things wouldn't be, a lot of us felt used.”