Tommie Smith Recalls His 1968 Olympic Protest PDF Print E-mail
By Erica Mcrae -- Black College Wire   

Savin Jospeh/CampusEcho
Smith at UNC-Chapel Hill
Activist Olympian Tommie Smith kicked off a year-long lecture series at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in front of a packed auditorium on Thursday, Sept. 11.

 The Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History is celebrating black Americans’ achievements with a series called “1968: The Whole World Was Watching.”

Smith is best known for winning the gold medal at the ’68 summer Olympics in Mexico City for his world-record of 19.83 seconds in the 200 meter dash and for his famous gloved-fist salute along with bronze medalist John Carlos. He is the author of the book "Silent Gesture" with David Steele.

Silent Gesture book cover
Upon receiving their medals, Smith and Carlos raised black-gloved fists in the air, creating an image that will always stand as an iconic representation of black power, liberation and solidarity.

Their silent gestures were heard around the world.  

After the stand in Mexico City, Smith told ABC-TV sportscaster Howard Cosell, “My raised right hand stood for the power in Black America. Carlos’ raised left hand stood for the unity of Black America. “  Together they formed an arch of unity and power.  

“This was our platform, and John and I used this moment to take a stand. We were embracing those who had no other platform but the streets. My silent gestures were designed to speak volumes, ” Smith said.  

This worldwide event unexpectedly forced Smith into the national spotlight. He became a human rights spokesman, activist and received numerous humanitarian awards.  Along with fame, came painful backlashes.

After the Olympics, Smith received countless taunts and death threats against himself and numerous violent encounters against his family.  It was hard for him to find work.  “I had to leave the state of California,” said Smith. “Here I was an Olympic gold medalist, and I was even fired from my job washing cars.”  

After graduating from San Jose State with a degree in sociology, Smith moved to Ohio. He learned from this experience and made a commitment to dedicate his life to educate and inform African Americans sociologically, morally, athletically, financially, spiritually, and most importantly, educationally.  

He eventually became the athletic director and a professor of sports sociology at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio. Since then, Smith has been an advocate of higher learning.

At the lecture, Smith’s main focus was on the importance of education. He reiterated the significance of knowledge and how powerful it is to all of us.  Smith is from a small town in east Texas, and the 7th of 12 children.  

“Growing up in the South picking and chopping cotton wasn’t what I wanted to do,” Smith said. “Nobody can ever take your education away from you. My father told me to get an education so I’d never have to go back to picking cotton in the fields where I grew up in rural Texas. I followed his advice.”

Since the '68 summer Olympics, Smith has enjoyed a distinguished career as a coach, athletic director and activist.  In 2005, he was awarded an honorary doctorate in humane letters by San Jose State University for his courageous efforts of human rights, humanity and dignity.  Smith’s humanist stance has inspired a new generation. In August, Smith gave Jamaica’s 2008 Olympic triple gold medal winner, Usain Bolt, one of his shoes from the 1968 Summer Games as a birthday gift.

Smith is still in great demand on the lecture circuit for his recollections of his historic stand.  He is the only man in track-and-field history to hold 11 world records simultaneously, and the first man in Olympic history to win a gold medal in record-breaking time in the 200-meter.

He has been an educator and a track-and-field coach for 40 years.

Erica Mcrae  is sports editor of the Campus Echo, the North Carolina Central University student newspaper, which originally published this article.

Posted Sep. 19, 2008
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