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National anthem controversies are nothing new; we just hit the 50th anniversary of two big ones

Both occurred 50 years ago this month, during an unpopular war abroad and domestic unrest at home, and sparked loud reaction and widespread denunciation.

The Color Guard stands for the National Anthem

The Color Guard stands for the National Anthem as the American Flag is unfurled of ALDS Game 1. Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

With the continuing and unresolved issue of National Football League players kneeling (or remaining in the locker room) during the playing of the National Anthem before games, one is reminded of two incidents involving the anthem: Both occurred 50 years ago this month, during an unpopular war abroad and domestic unrest at home, and sparked loud reaction and widespread denunciation.

The first incident was the rendition of the National Anthem in a slow, “bluesy” manner by the Puerto Rican American pop singer Jose Feliciano before Game 5 of the 1968 World Series in Detroit, between the Tigers and the St. Louis Cardinals on Oct. 7. The second came nine days later on the 16th when, during the medal ceremony after the 200 meter track and field race at the Summer Olympics in Mexico City, gold medalist Tommie Smith and bronze recipient John Carlos each raised a black-gloved fist while the Star Spangled Banner was being played.

Mr. Feliciano, whose rendition of The Doors hit “Light My Fire” shot up to No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 listings during the summer of 1968, was invited by Detroit Tigers’ (and one-time Baltimore Orioles’) announcer Ernie Harwell. Some in the crowd began booing even before Mr. Feliciano had finished. The telephone switchboard at Tiger Stadium was jammed with hundreds of angry callers, and NBC, which telecast the game, received numerous complaints from viewers at its headquarters in New York. Later, the American Legion passed a resolution of censure, and Harwell got hate mail and nearly lost his job.

Perhaps the strangest impact of the lengthy Star Spangled Banner rendition was on Detroit’s starting pitcher Mickey Lolich, whose pre-game warm-up routine was disrupted, which may have contributed to the Cardinals scoring three first-inning runs off him. Still, Detroit, which was down 3 to 1 in the series, rallied in the seventh inning on a two-run single by Hall of Famer (and Baltimore native) Al Kaline, and the Tigers won 5 to 3. In winning the next two games in St. Louis, Detroit completed one of the great comebacks in World Series history, with Mr. Lolich winning three games.

The protest in Mexico City at the 1968 Summer Olympics originally began as a proposed boycott by African-American athletes organized a year earlier at San Jose State University, where Messrs. Smith and Carlos were on the track team. While the boycott eventually faded (though college basketball star Lew Alcindor - later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - did skip the Olympics), the decision was made to express some statement while at the games.

When the 200-meter race was run on Oct. 16, Tommie Smith won the gold medal in world record time, and John Carlos won the bronze in third. (Peter Norman of Australia won silver.) At the medal ceremony, both U.S. athletes mounted the stand shoeless in black socks, symbolizing African-American poverty; each wore a black glove on one hand (both intended to wear gloves on each hand, but after Mr. Carlos forgot his, Mr. Norman - sympathetic to the Americans’ cause - suggested each wear one glove from Smith’s pair). When the Star Spangled Banner was played, both Mr. Smith and Mr. Carlos raised their gloved hands (Smith, right; Carlos, left) in what was interpreted as a “black power” salute, though both claimed it was about human rights.

Quickly, the protest came to the attention of International Olympic Committee officials, including the American president of the IOC, the autocratic Avery Brundage, who ordered the U.S. Olympic Committee to suspend Messrs. Smith and Carlos, and after threatening to ban the entire American track team, the two athletes were kicked out of the Olympic Village, left Mexico City and returned to San Jose, where they were greeted as heroes on campus and by the African-American protest movement.

Media response also came quickly. While some were sympathetic to the athletes protest - such as ABC sportscaster Howard Cosell, who interviewed Mr. Smith in Mexico City, and sportswriter Red Smith, who said the USOC did not know the difference between “politics and human rights” - most in the press were outraged and condemned the Olympic athletes for supposedly dishonoring the anthem and the flag.

Nine days, two events involving the National Anthem, 50 years before the present controversy about athletes and the Star Spangled Banner. The intersection between sports and politics and national symbolism has frequently been a complicated matter in American life. And in a country that values free expression, but also honors what the nation stands for, it no doubt always will be.

William J. Thompson is a Baltimore historian, teacher, and writer.

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