Fifty years ago, at the beginning of October, events took place at the Olympic Games that shook the sports world and beyond. Some U.S. athletes on the team staged a protest, but unlike today, they didn’t take a knee. The first and third place winners of the 200-meter race appeared shoeless on the winners’ podium and raised their fists in the air during the playing of the U.S. national anthem. All three winners of the event wore the Olympic Project for Human Rights badge. The taboo of mixing sports and politics was broken again. Other athletes wore black berets and raised their fists on the podium. But the protest during the national anthem created the greatest response.
The protest by John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the ‘68 Olympics was not an isolated event; it came during a major period of political upheaval around the world including in the hosting country of the Olympics, Mexico. In early summer of 1968, Mexico was in the midst of a movement against exploitation and oppression. At that time, the country was headed by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) that had governed Mexico since 1929 with an authoritarian, corrupt, and repressive rule. For most Mexicans, life meant living in slums or poor villages with little access to social services including education, healthcare, and housing. Angered by the fact that the government was spending massive amounts of money to host the Olympics while failing to address the needs of the population, the oppressed of Mexico, especially its student youth, revolted, and a new movement emerged.
The movement began on July 22 when riot police violently suppressed a brawl of high school students in Mexico City. In response, students from various high schools and universities in the city initiated hunger strikes and occupied several buildings on their campuses. On July 30, army and police units were directed to crush the protest. Several students were killed when the army used a bazooka to force its way into the occupied buildings.
The government’s brutal response created more discontent among students. A growing number of them began speaking out and mobilizing. On August 1, faculty and students from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) led a march of 100,000 people through the city. On August 27, one of the largest protests in Mexico’s history was organized at the Zócalo, Mexico City’s main square, which drew an estimated half a million people, including students, teachers, nurses, railway workers, and other workers. Strikes and protests quickly spread to other universities and cities across the country.
As the movement continued to grow, people’s demands expanded to include social equality, government accountability, and a more open democracy. They wanted the state to stop investing its resources on Mexico’s elites and start addressing the needs of ordinary people. The movement encouraged all people to participate, and many became convinced it was time for serious social change.
As protests continued, so too did the government’s violence to suppress them. The government viewed the demonstrations not only as a direct threat to its authority, but as a possible hindrance to the Olympics. The Mexican Army was ordered to occupy the campuses, which had become the organizing centers of the movement. In response, a rally and march was called on October 2 to protest the military occupation of the campuses.
That day, about 15,000 people were gathered in the center of Mexico City when military units suddenly moved in with tanks. Snipers in nearby buildings began firing indiscriminately into the crowd. Soldiers started firing back, and people began fleeing for their lives. When the shooting stopped, more than 300 people were dead, including students, military personnel, and civilians.
The massacre was a planned government attack, with military forces ordered to end the movement permanently and arrest all student leaders. Snipers were instructed to fire into the crowd to provoke an armed response from the soldiers and lead to a massacre. Following the carnage, the government covered up the incident and conducted no formal investigation. After the massacre, the students continued to denounce the violence. But the brutal crackdown by the government had been a deep blow, and on December 4, they decided to officially end the strike.
The student protests didn’t lead to immediate political or social change, but they did expose the repressive and corrupt nature of the Mexican state. This transformed the mindset of both the students and the general population. Many ordinary people were now more willing to criticize the system and demand change, making it difficult for the PRI to continue to rule unchallenged. Eventually, the government conceded some token reforms, and decades later the PRI was voted out of power. The events of 1968 in Mexico should serve as a reminder of the power of ordinary people to fight for the kind of world we deserve.