Olympian Tommie Smith reflects on controversial Black Power gesture
BY TIM MADIGAN
FORT WORTH STAR-TELEGRAM/ MCT
For Tommie Smith in 1968, the joy of Olympic victory was replaced in seconds by the reality of what he knew needed to come next. He had just overcome a pulled muscle to set a world record in the 200-meter dash, winning the gold medal in Mexico City just ahead of U.S. teammate John Carlos, who finished third.
The medal stand and history beckoned for both.
“About three strides after I hit the tape, you can see the genuine smile on my face, but you’ll see that smile immediately diminished,” Smith, now 69, said last week. “All of a sudden, ‘Oh, oh, it’s time.’ There was another chapter. If I won the race, the next chapter was, ‘How am I going to do this? This has to be done so that people will understand.’”
He referred to one of the most iconic and controversial moments in the history of the Olympic games, to the tightly choreographed protest carried out that October evening by Smith and Carlos. At the first note of the Star-Spangled Banner, the two African-Americans simultaneously raised black-gloved fists and bowed their heads in what was described as a Black Power salute. They had carried their shoes to the medal stand and stood with pants legs rolled to reveal black socks.
Years of hardship
The moment put a stunning exclamation mark on one of the American century’s most tumultuous years, earning Smith and Carlos the disdain of much of White America, scores of death threats, and long periods of personal hardship.
Nearly five decades later, much has changed. The two are now widely revered as prophets and civil rights icons, celebrated in a series of recent books and documentaries.
“I think we see the change about how they are perceived for the same reason we see Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King Jr. as heroes,” said Dave Zirin, co-author of the 2011 biography, “The John Carlos Story: A Sports Moment that Changed the World.”
“There was a lot of injustice and oppression at the time. These are the things these guys stood up against. These are the positions they were pilloried for. There is a recognition now that they were on the right side of history.”
Smith realizes that many today don’t understand the power of their Olympic gesture or the times that made it necessary.
“Young people are seeing this photo (of the medal stand protest) and they want to know what it is,” Smith said. “Two guys standing on the victory stand with hand in the air and heads bowed. What does this mean?’ We used the stand for people who had no stand.”
The early years
Carlos was born in Harlem, a brash young man who organized his first protest as a teenager when his school lunchroom served chicken to minority students without first removing all the feathers. He was a devotee of the Black leader Malcolm X. Smith was a less likely militant.
The seventh of 12 children, he was the son of a sharecropper born in the northeast East Texas town of Clarksville. Smith was a quiet, religious boy who worked alongside his parents and siblings picking cotton.
The family moved from Texas to California when he was 6, riding in a bus full of field laborers.
“Tommie Smith wanted to win the gold medal, come home, get a job, have kids, go to church and die,” Smith said last week. “That’s just the way I was brought up.”
He was delivered from the cotton fields by his speed, and with the gift came a broader responsibility, Smith believed. He eventually earned an athletic scholarship to San Jose State University, at the time the nation’s most prestigious track and field program. It was there he met sociology professor Harry Edwards, who urged elite Black athletes to be heard on issues of race and injustice.
Smith, the nation’s top sprinter, joined Edwards as one of the founding members of the Olympic Project for Human Rights.
“We must no longer allow this country to use a few so-called Negroes to point out to the world how much progress she has made in solving her racial problems when the oppression of African-Americans is greater than ever,” the OPHR, which consisted of Black athletes, said in its founding statement. “So we ask, why should we run in Mexico only to crawl home?”
The OPHR athletes threatened to boycott the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, another incendiary ingredient in the cauldron that was 1968 in America. Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert Kennedy were assassinated that year, students across the nation continued to march against the Vietnam War and violent clashes between protesters and police marred the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
But the Mexico City boycott movement fizzled, a bitter disappointment to many in the Olympic Project.
“This was done in Denver en route to Mexico City, the last meeting of the athletes,” Smith said last week. “It was decided that each athlete would represent themselves according to how they felt the country represented them.”
Before leaving the United States, Smith told his wife to buy a pair of black gloves and bring them to Mexico.
“She wondered why,” he said. “Nobody knew anything. She gave them to me when she arrived in Mexico City. I put them in my bag. No big thing.”
Smith and Carlos were prohibitive Olympic favorites in the 200 meters. Before their event began, they spoke in general terms about using the medal stand to make a statement.
Smith almost never got the chance. In his semifinal race, he pulled a groin muscle just after crossing the finish line. The finals would come a short time later that same day.
Thoughts of a medal stand protest became secondary.
“My psychology immediately changed to running the race with that pulled muscle,” Smith said. “How could I get up to speed without that muscle. I was deeply worried about winning.”
Somehow, in the final stretch of the race, Smith exploded past Carlos to set a world record. A White Australian sprinter, Peter Norman, nipped Carlos at the tape to finish second.
The medal ceremony took place about an hour later. The three medalists were brought to a room beneath the Olympic stadium. In those few minutes, the details of the protest came together, including what was known as the Black Power salute, Smith said.
“The black socks we had worn in all the races already,” Smith said. “Nobody had ever worn black socks before. The socks I had on were my Sunday socks. I had worn those to church.”
A joint move
Smith handed Carlos the left glove, keeping the right for himself.
“I just said, ‘Here.’”
Carlos took the symbolism further, wearing beads around his neck to protest lynching.
In a violation of Olympic protocol he unzipped his jacket top, in what he later said was a nod to the working class and people in Harlem. They carried their shoes with them to the medal stand.
Norman also asked to participate, and found a patch of the OPHR to wear on the medal stand.
“We walked into the stadium, crossed the track and walked behind the platform,” Smith remembered. “Peter Norman was in front, I was in the middle, John was behind. We had discussed that as soon as the American flag went up, we had to make a joint move. I said, ‘My head will be bowed and my hand will go to God and I will pray during the national anthem because this country needs a lot of prayer.”
On the first note Smith’s right hand shot up, followed immediately by the left hand of Carlos. They bowed their heads. An eerie silence fell over the stadium. Then boos began to descend. The two raised their fists one last time while walking from the stadium. A few days later, at the order of the International Olympic Committee, Smith and Carlos were kicked out of Mexico.
In the preface of the John Carlos Story, Zirin summarized the reaction back home. The Los Angeles Times described the protest as a “Nazi-like salute.” Time magazine displayed the Olympic logo on its cover with the words “Angrier, Nastier, Uglier,’” a play upon an Olympic motto.
The Chicago Tribune said the protest was “an embarrassment visited on our country.” A young sportswriter named Brent Musburger called it a “juvenile gesture by a couple of young athletes who should have known better.”
Both Smith and Carlos were largely ostracized in the years after. They had brief careers in the National Football League, but otherwise had difficulty finding work. The marriages of both collapsed.
“How can you say it? I had nothing but God,” Smith said last week.
Both men eventually earned advanced college degrees. Smith taught college for three decades. Carlos worked as a high school guidance counselor in California.
“As recently as three years ago, no one wanted to talk to me. No one wanted to say my name,” Carlos wrote in his autobiography in 2011. “It was almost like we were on a desert island. That’s where Tommie Smith and John Carlos were. But we survived.”
In an emotional ceremony in 2005, a statue of Smith and Carlos was unveiled on the San Jose State campus. Three years later, on the 40th anniversary of Mexico City, the two received the Arthur Ashe Courage award, presented during the ESPY award program of ESPN.
“He certainly feels vindicated,” Zirin said of Carlos. “I think it helped a lot when the won the Arthur Ashe award. The statue at San Jose State meant everything, especially since the money had been raised by the students, not be the administration.
“Just the cracking of the bitterness is what I’ve seen,” he said.
Smith said last week he has no regrets.
“Once I stepped on the victory stand, the next minute and a half set the pattern for my future life,” he said. “Am I happy I did it? Of course I am. Two positive thoughts are worth more than a thousand negatives. And I’ve had a lot of positive thoughts.