1968

From the sight lines in Berkeley, California, where I lived then and live now, I recall 1968 as a year of horror and bad faith, fervor and despair. Most of all, there was the sense of knowing that when you drew a breath you were breathing history along with the air, or the smoke—but that doesn’t mean you knew what history was, or would be. History was being made in the instant, which said nothing about what would be included in the books yet to be written, or left out of them, as if what goes in or what goes out stays the same. These names made history in 1968: John Carlos, Bob Beamon, Tommie Smith. They were shouted around the world. Which of them still echoes, which is barely a name at all? “Still the spirit of ’68,” John Lydon, born to the world as Johnny Rotten, sang in 1979 with his band PiL, when 1968, not a concept but a year, a real time, seemed much farther away than, as I write in 2008, in this year of media anniversaries, it does now. The song was “Albatross”; the singer sounded beaten down by history, 1968 a huge dead bird around his neck, but he also sounded as if he knew it was the wind at his back.

Berkeley was a lookout and a hideout. The great storm of student protest that would convulse the United States and nations well beyond it had begun there in 1964 with the Free Speech Movement. It was three months of daily speeches, marches, building occupations, and finally, played out in a Greek theater, high drama. That drama—a university in convocation with itself, everyone present, the leaders of the institution speaking quieting words, then a single student, standing to speak, immediately seized by police, an act of violence actually revealing the face of power behind the face of reasonableness—brought the moment to a close and opened a field that in the years to come would be crossed by thousands. But in 1968 the spirit that animated a simple demand for the free exercise of rights that students had assumed were theirs—because they had learned such a story in their classrooms and then, as if by instinct, began to put it into practice—had in the most familiar arena long since turned cheap and rote.

When in May of 1968 a rally was held in Berkeley to celebrate the poorly understood but exciting revolt taking place in France, activists distributed leaflets denouncing the police violence that had dispersed the rally before the rally had actually taken place. When students at Columbia University in New York, protesting what they saw as the university’s colonialist appropriation of property in Harlem, shut the school down—with the novel technique of occupying one building and then, when the police arrived, filing out, only to seize another building, and then another, and another—Berkeley radicals called on their fellows to “do a Columbia”: not for any reason, not in the face of any injustice or insult, but for lack of anything better to do.columbia1968a

With the Vietnam War all but rolling back across the Pacific to poison the United States itself, it was as if people turned to spectacular lies and glamorous trivialities to hide from themselves the fact that their imaginations had turned to ice. Truly enormous events taking place elsewhere did not travel. Word of the Prague Spring, even the meaning of the Soviet invasion that crushed it, arrived only in fragments, and no speaker stood up to put the pieces together. News of the massacre of scores—no, hundreds—of students in Mexico City, just before the Olympic Games were to begin there, was suppressed from the start, and so profoundly that the facts would take nearly forty years to come out of the ground. But in the United States few if any looked; curiosity about the world withered.

It’s clear now that the signal song of that year, the song with which Bob Dylan has for years, to this day, closed his concerts, was “All along the Watchtower”—a song that ended with words that, in any traditional ballad, would have opened it: “Two riders were approaching/The wind began to howl.” Occupying the moral center of Dylan’s album John Wesley Harding, it made its way onto and out of the radio slowly, like a rumor. Too slowly: when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis in April, and then when, in June, in Los Angeles, Robert F. Kennedy, running for president, was shot and killed, the song did not play, even in the minds of those who watched the funerals on television. It did not give voice to the awful sense of disease, ruin, and damnation that seized the country so fully it could only be channeled into calls for gun control and a ludicrous riot in Chicago against a presidential nominating convention where, had he lived, Kennedy would have lost.

The Mexican government wanted a clean Olympics, a clean show, and so did the world. That is why the massacres took place, why the government buried the event literally and figuratively, and why the cover-up was a complete success, with witnesses disappeared and murdered for years afterward to keep the peace. So the games went on as planned—except for John Carlos and Tommie Smith of San José State in California, American entrants in the two-hundred-meter dash. Inspired by Harry Edwards’s Olympic Project for Human Rights, which had originally called for an Olympics boycott by all black athletes, they had a plan. They would run the race; they would win; and then they would mount the victory stand and, as the band played “The Star-Spangled Banner,” before the eyes of the entire world they would bow their heads and raise black-gloved fists in salutes of black power and black unity. With beads around their necks they would signify the deaths of those leaders like King who had been assassinated and of the nameless thousands gone who had been lynched and thrown from slave ships; with shoeless feet they would signify poverty; in their silence they would speak out. On October 16 the plan was realized: Smith finished first, tying the world record, and took the gold medal; Carlos finished third and took the bronze. As Peter Norman of Australia, who took the silver medal—and who, that night, would wear an Olympics Project for Human Rights badge in solidarity—stared straight ahead, they gestured.john_carlos_olympics_ap_realimgThey marked, or scarred, their national anthem as definitively as Jimi Hendrix would a year later at the Woodstock Festival. Though no one, as I remember, drew the connection at the time, Hendrix’s furiously, exultantly distorted, bottomlessly complex recasting of “The Star-Spangled Banner” was not only a version of what Smith and Carlos did with it, his version may have been inspired by theirs.

This event has never been forgotten. Carlos and Smith were treated as terrorists, as if their fists were guns and they had fired them. They were expelled from their team, sent home, and covered in obloquy. Though they never backed down, as the years passed neither man’s affirmation of what he had done matched the other’s. There were disagreements over whose idea the act was, over who owned it. As they do still, interviewers worked to draw out resentment and betrayal, to find a crack in the image of the two men on the stand that, for all the confusion added to it after the fact, remains indelibly plain.jimiOn October 18, two days after Smith and Carlos were removed from the games, the American long jumper Bob Beamon launched himself. He had never jumped farther than twenty-seven feet and four inches; he would never again jump farther than twenty-six feet and eleven and three-quarter inches. But on this day, when he landed, he had become the first person in history to jump twenty-nine feet. He had traveled twenty-nine feet and two and one-half inches through the air. From 1935 to 1968 the world record in the long jump had increased by eight and a half inches; on this day Beamon broke the world record by almost two feet.

It was an act for which there are no parallels and no metaphors. There can be no statue for it, as, in 2005, at San José State University, a statue was unveiled celebrating the act performed in 1968 by Smith and Carlos: figures of the two men on the victory stand, with Norman’s place empty, so that, as Norman said at the time, “Anybody can get up there and stand up for something they believe in.” “We felt a need to represent a lot of people who did more than we did and had no platform,” Smith said. It was about human rights, Norman said: “The issue is still there today and they’ll be there at Beijing and we’ve got to make sure we don’t lose sight of that.”

Beamon’s name is little mentioned today. For twenty-three years, jumpers edged closer to his record, inch by inch; mathematically, it was finally broken by Michael Powell in 1991, but in the way that his act has never been matched, even in imagination it was never really surpassed. In 1968, almost everything became part of history even before people realized what had happened, and for the rest of their lives, they and others, many not born at the time, would argue over what they had done. But what Beamon did was in a queer and ineradicable way outside of history, where it remains—and in that sense, in a way different from all the banners raised in 1968, it is an image of freedom against which there can be no argument at all.


Common Knowledge 15:3 (2009)


Common Knowledge is a literary journal originally published by Oxford University Press and now by Duke. Greil Marcus has served on the editorial board since its inception in 1992.


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