Mexico, 16 October 1968 | Jon Dominis

The raised fists of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the Olympic games.

This photograph of the American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico Olympics is seen as an enduring image of Black Power. The location is the 200m winners' podium, a race that Smith won, and in which Carlos finished third behind the Australian Peter Norman.

Smith and Carlos wore no shoes, and stood with arms raised; Norman wore the badge of the Olympic Project of Human Rights to show his support for his fellow athletes.

Reportedly, Norman suggested that the Americans share Smith's gloves, as Carlos had left his pair behind, which is why his left hand is raised rather than his right. In a later interview, Smith said:

That photo represents a lot of things. One, it represented the organisation of the Olympic Project for Human Rights for over a year and a half. And since the athletes voted not to boycott, as it would send the wrong message, it was decided that each athlete would represent himself as appropriately as possible, depending on the way they felt about a country which would not represent them equally.

This was to draw attention to the malfunctioning of a nation that was supposed to represent equality [but] did not. So we wanted to bring attention to what was not done according to the constitution.

The glove represented power and the cry for freedom. The bowed head was prayer, and I was praying then, I was not bowing my head just to look at my chest. The bare feet represented [the] poverty . . . so many people have gone through just to make a step so we can wear shoes . . . This photo here didn't just represent black rights. It represented human rights.

In a charming recent video interview with his niece, Carlos spoke of the concerns that he and Smith shared at the time about black America. He said:

Our goal was to try and bring some sort of attention and focus as to the necessity for us to have a more harmonious and peaceful society.

The immediate consequence of the act was the suspension of both athletes from the American Olympic team, and a swift reprimand by the International Olympic Committee. It was another divisive gesture in a landmark year in American history.

Next: Cuba, 5 March 1960 | Alberto Korda

Previous: Abu Ghraib, 2003 | Unknown photographer

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This image features in the 50 Greatest Political Photographs (part one) special double issue of the NS. You can order your copy here.

The judges were Jason Cowley, Jonathan Dimbleby, Stuart Franklin, Rebecca McClelland and Jon Snow.