Fifty years ago Friday, Mexico City kicked off the opening ceremonies of the 1968 Summer Olympics. World records were shattered in those Games, but it was Tommie Smith's and John Carlos' medal podium protest that captured the headlines.
Melvin Pender, a 31-year-old runner, was Carlos' roommate at the games. During a visit to StoryCorps last month, Pender reflected on the historic event with his friend, Keith Sims, whom he coached in track at West Point.
Pender had been a platoon leader in Vietnam when he got tapped by the military to compete. At the time, Pender was one of the fastest track athletes in the Army.
Before the Olympics, Pender faced mentally and physically taxing challenges while deployed to Mekong Delta in southern Vietnam. "Things happen, you know, you couldn't see the enemy, they were shooting at us from the jungles," he told Sims. He lost one of the soldiers in his division. "This young man died in my arms."
After that mission, he says, a captain relayed orders from Washington that he was being pulled from active duty to train for the Mexico City Games. "I didn't want to go. I didn't want to leave my men," Pender recalls. "I told my men, 'I'm going back for you. I'm going to win this gold medal for you guys.' "
When he arrived in Mexico to compete, Avery Brundage, the president of the International Olympic Committee, warned athletes, according to Pender, that if they demonstrated in the Olympics, " 'I'm going to send all you boys home.' "
Pender saw the threats as a sign of disrespect. "How are you going to call someone 'boy'? I mean, here I just got out of combat, seeing people die, you know, defending my country — you're going to call me a boy?" he said. "They don't make boys like me."
High-ranking officers issued his fellow African-American soldiers similar warnings. "Col. [Donald] Miller called all us in and said, 'You know, you're in the military. You know you can't get involved in any kind of demonstration.' "
After sports practices, black athletes would gather to talk about the mounting racial violence and inequality happening in the U.S. In these meetings, athletes discussed how they might protest, Pender recalls.
"I said, 'I have been going to the meetings, yes. We all have. We all black,' " Pender says. "Just 'cause I'm in the military don't make me anything different, but I'm not going to do anything that's going to disgrace my family and my military career."
Although he supported other black athletes who chose to protest, Pender knew he could not demonstrate if he wanted to keep his military standing.
Pender's event was the 4x100-meter relay. "To be on the relay team, it was my time to shine," he said. "I ran my heart out. We end up winning the race at a world-record time of 38.2 seconds." And with it, a gold medal.
Meanwhile, Carlos, his Olympic Village roommate, won the bronze medal in the 200-meter dash. Smith won gold. The moment is captured in a famous picture: On the medal podium during the national anthem, Smith and Carlos, heads bowed and wearing black gloves, raised their arms with clenched fists in a Black Power salute. Peter Norman, a white Australian runner who won silver, wore an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge in support.
Pender tells Sims that he felt proud of his U.S. teammates. "When Carlos came back to the room, I could see the hurt in his eyes, and he just said, 'I did what I had to do, Mel.' And that's when I told him, I said, 'I'm so proud of you.' "
In response to the protest, the International Olympic Committee stripped Carlos and Smith of their gold medals.
Much of the media coverage and the international community misconstrued the political statement as unpatriotic, Pender says. "They was not trying to disgrace the national anthem of America," he says. "What was happening was wrong. They were trying to show the world: 'Hey, we are human beings — we're human.' "
"That changed my life."
After returning to Vietnam, Pender earned a bronze star for his service. He and Carlos remain friends today.
Audio produced for Morning Edition by Kelly Moffitt.
StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.