Tommie Smith (L) competing and (R) protesting on the podium at the Olympic Games Mexico City 1968 on Oct. 16, 1968 in Mexico City, Mexico.
Tommie Smith set a world record in the men’s 200-meter at the Olympic Games Mexico City 1968. But he is best remembered for the iconic statement that he made during the medal ceremony — when he and bronze medalist John Carlos raised black-gloved fists on the podium. Their silent gesture became a powerful symbol of the civil rights movement.
Fifty-one years later, Smith and Carlos are being inducted into the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Hall of Fame.
Smith is proud of the honor. But not for his current 75-year-old self.
“I will accept it for the 24-year-old man,” he said by phone. “That’s the pride in it, accepting it now for him. Fifty-one years is kind of late for me. So I accept it for him, a 24-year-old student-athlete who deserved it then.”
Like his statement implies, Smith divides his life into parts — parts that, totaled together, equal Dr. Tommie Smith. But the parts are each separate.
First, there is Tommie Smith, the youth, a boy born to sharecroppers on D-Day — June 6, 1944. A thoughtful, pious man, Smith grew up going to church every Sunday with his family, and then with his roommate in college, and he appreciates and is thankful for God’s many gifts.
Smith had the gift of speed. And Tommie Smith, the student-athlete, went to San Jose State University in 1963 on a basketball-track-football scholarship. The university was known as Speed City for its fast sprinters, and Smith soon gave up basketball for track. (Of San Jose State’s 25 Olympic athletes, seven Spartans competed in the 1968 Olympic Games.)
On the track, Smith made a name for himself, “memorable for his acceleration — dubbed Tommie-jet gear in the press — and for wearing dark sunglasses in races,” wrote Kenny Moore in a 1991 Sports Illustrated article. A marathoner, Moore shared a room with Smith at the 1968 Olympic Games.
The sunglasses, Smith told Moore, shielded his eyes from the California sun. Others said he wore them because he was shy.
By 1965, Smith was the second-ranked 200 sprinter in the world. The next year, he moved into the top spot and held it for the next three years. He also dominated in the 400. But the 200 was his sweet spot. On June 11, 1966, he set a world record in the 220-yard dash (which corresponded to a world record in the 200-meter distance as well) — one of 11 world records he would set between 1966 and 1968.
“In the history of track and field, it’s the most anyone has set,” Smith said, a rare boast.
Smith wasn’t just fast. He was active in civil rights — his college career spanning the most tumultuous years of the civil rights movement — and he was impressed by charismatic San Jose State sociology instructor Dr. Harry Edwards. In September 1967, Edwards urged the African American athletes on campus to use their platform to model social change.
Their traction grew, and by November, Edwards, Dr. Ken Noel (also a San Jose State sociology professor), sprinter Lee Evans and Smith formed the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR). They tested support among African American athletes to boycott the 1968 Olympic Games.
“When the Constitution said, ‘We the People,’ it didn’t say ‘We the Presidents’ or ‘We the Congress’ or ‘We the Governors’ or the legislatures or the Supreme Court justices, it said, ‘We the People,’” said Edwards by phone. “We felt an obligation in terms of participatory citizenship to use the forum that we had to make a statement concerning our perspectives on what was happening in this country. It was a statement of faith which essentially said we are better than this.”
In the end, OPHR chose not to boycott the 1968 Games. But the OPHR athletes still wanted to call attention to racial disparity, especially toward African Americans in the U.S.
“The last meeting we had [before the Games], it was decided that each athlete would represent himself according to how he felt the country represented him,” explained Smith. “It was an individual gesture, not a gesture of the entire team. I felt a responsibility to be one of those leaders in that gesture.”
But even after he arrived in Mexico City that October, Smith had no idea what gesture he might make. Given his quiet nature and strong Christian faith, it would be a silent gesture and one with conviction.
Then, after the 200 semifinal, it appeared that Smith might not have a chance to make any gesture. He had won his semifinal heat but strained an adductor muscle in his left leg as he slowed down. Lying on a table with ice on the injury, he felt as if his chances were finished.
“I went to the Olympic Games for the competition, to do the best I possibly could, and I really didn’t want to run if I couldn’t do the best I could,” Smith said.
Lee Evans walked up to him and said, “You have to run this race. Get off the table and run the race.”
Thirty minutes before the final, Smith tested the leg. It held.
“I kind of smiled inside,” he said. “I knew that I had something in me, I had a race in me.”
From the gun in the final, Carlos — the more explosive of the two sprinters — took the early lead.
“I have long legs and a short torso,” explained Smith. “My wheels got turning a little slower than his at the beginning, and I had to give some credence to that injury.”
Coming into the straight, Smith’s long stride ate up the track. He passed Carlos, and a few yards before the finish, Smith put his arms out wide in victory. He set a world record that night — 19.83 seconds.
“I broke my own world record, which was kind of entertaining,” Smith said with a quiet laugh.
It’s a fact that became lost in the gesture that followed. The record held for 11 years.
Preparing for the medal ceremony, Smith finally knew what he would do. He pulled a black scarf from his bag, as well as black gloves. He kept the right glove and gave the left to Carlos. They would go shoeless too — a symbol of poverty. Both men wore OPHR pins, as did silver medalist Peter Norman from Australia.
On the podium, they received their medals, and Smith was given a box containing an olive sapling, a symbol of peace. As the national anthem played, they bowed their heads, and Smith raised his right fist, Carlos his left.
Many thought he was disrespecting the flag — a misinterpretation that hurts Smith. With his head bowed, he was praying, saying thanks to the Lord for the opportunity to win an Olympic gold medal and for the chance to stand up for civil rights.
The International Olympic Committee pressured the then-United States Olympic Committee to send home Smith and Carlos. The podium protest was — and still is — a violation of the Olympic Charter.
While their protest became an iconic symbol of the civil rights movement, it did not sit well with many Americans at the time. Reporters wrongly and unfairly referred to the men as black militants, and they lost opportunities to capitalize on their Olympic medals. Originally drafted by the Rams, Smith said the NFL team lost interest after the negative press.
So he finished his degree at San Jose State and struggled to make ends meet. He had a wife and young son.
“There wasn’t very much food,” he admitted, “just trying to get by. I really wanted and needed to graduate.”
He did graduate, then was drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals. For three years, he played on their practice squad.
From the NFL, he went back to school, earning a master’s in social change from the Goddard-Cambridge Graduate Program in 1976. He taught and coached at Oberlin College in Ohio for six years, then moved back to California, where he taught and coached at Santa Monica College for 27 years. He retired in 2005, the same year that San Jose State erected a 22-foot statue of Smith and Carlos in Legacy Plaza and awarded them honorary doctorates. Two years later, he published a book, “Silent Gesture: The Autobiography of Tommie Smith.”
Smith now lives in Stone Mountain, Georgia, with his wife Delois. Between them, they have nine children and 15 grandchildren.
In addition to public speaking, Smith remains a sought-after mentor. His former students still seek his advice, and he likes to mentor young people through the Tommie Smith Youth Initiative Program, as well as his church.
“You tell them to follow their nose and don’t forget your handkerchief,” he said, when asked what advice he dispenses. “You can have a cold and need to blow, or you can be crying and need to blow. If you stuff your nose up, you can’t smell anything, so everything is going to look bad to you.
“You give them the sociological attitude of life, not a story that makes them feel good, make them understand that they’re not the only ones who have suffered. The words have to be soft enough that they’ll ask the next time.”
The many parts of Smith’s life all deserve recognition. But Smith is accepting the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Hall of Fame honor only for his former self — the 24-year-old student-athlete who set 11 world records during his four-year collegiate career and won an Olympic gold medal.
“I’m not accepting this for the Tommie Smith now,” he reiterated, “but for the Tommie Smith back in 1968. He’s the one who deserved the applause, not me now.”
Dr. Edwards, who went on to teach sociology at the University of California, Berkeley for 32 years and recently founded the Institute for the Study of Sport, Society and Social Change at San Jose State — sees Smith and Carlos’ induction beyond their athletic achievements.
“Tommie and John’s induction into the hall of fame is just another gesture toward validating the perspectives we projected and were involved in generating half a century ago,” said Edwards. “It’s about time.”
An award-winning freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered five Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.