It was a photograph that shook the world: Two Olympic U.S. sprinters on a medal stand, one in the center and the other to the left. One has his black-gloved right fist raised to the sky, and the other has his black-gloved left fist in the air.
Both have their heads bowed and their eyes closed. They were black athletes defiantly broadcasting America’s racial tension to the rest of the world at the October 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, Mexico.
“It was a cry for freedom,” said Tommie Smith, that sprinter in the center of the photo, to a packed room in Paley Library last Friday. “It wasn’t for black power or for civil rights – it was for human rights.”
Smith along with co-author and sports columnist at the “Baltimore Sun” David Steele met with students and professors
during the reading and book signing of their new autobiography “A Silent Gesture”, as a part of Hart’s inauguration celebration.
In the book, they clear up any misconceptions about the fists that shook the foundations of the country during one of its most tumultuous periods. Smith was just an introverted 23-year-old student at San Jose State University at the time, but the track star from Kingston, Texas, said in his southern twang that he was “dedicated to lose his life for the stand.” It was a stand that crossed racial boundaries, he said.
“A lot of folks took [my gesture] and went the wrong way with it,” he said, standing up halfway through the reading to deliver a speech with preacher-like enthusiasm. “They called me a Black Panther. I wasn’t a Black Panther.” Smith said his intention was educational. It was the beginning of his life-long fight as a teacher toward “destroying stupidity.” But the image has become iconic for black athletes, the civil rights movement and Smith as a freedom fighter. He said he is OK with that because, given the country’s racial climate
at the time, it was hard to interpret it as anything else. Just six months before the 1968 Olympic Games, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
The year before, Muhammad Ali was stripped of his heavyweight title when he was sentenced to five years in prison for refusing to enter the draft.
Smith and his Olympic teammate John Carlos represented an era of black athletes united in a common cause. Smith credited the advancement of that cause to the Olympic Project for Human Rights, which King helped
The organization encouraged
boycotts of the Olympics until South Africa was banned from the Games for its practice
of widespread apartheid.
Smith said the organization gave him a platform for that symbolic gesture.
But the repercussions for that gesture made a simple raised fist the iconic statement that invigorated so many human rights activists.
Several people stood up and thanked Smith, including Assistant Athletic Director
John Baum, who was a star Temple basketball
player during the 1968 Olympic Games.
Smith’s gesture came with tremendous risks. Immediately after stepping down from the medal stand in Mexico City, Smith said he feared for his life. His 11 brothers and sisters were removed from their colleges, his parents received dead rats and horse manure in the mail from his own friends, and the U.S. Olympic Committee permanently removed him and Carlos from the team.
His mother died a few years later from stress. For Smith, it was time to go to war. The young student from Kingston, or “the backwoods” as he put it, who didn’t learn to read until fourth grade, saddled up and got his bachelor’s degree from San Jose State. He rode his bike to class for fear of a bomb being strapped to his car.
After a short stint with the NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals, for $300 a week, Smith began to coach track and field at Oberlin College in Ohio and then Santa Monica College, where he would eventually attain his master’s degree. Two years ago, he received his doctorate from Cambridge University. Now, he feels, it is time to tell his story. Steele, the co-author, went through boxes of tapes and journals Smith recorded during that turbulent time in his life and produced “A Silent Gesture”.
Smith, who recently retired, said he continues to educate through lectures and readings. He does it to stamp out what he calls “edu-hate,” or ignorance of racial and human rights.
“Every step you take, you’re responsible for,” he said, speaking to the many students in attendance. “Be proactive in your thought process and continue to ask yourself questions.”
Nick Pipitone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.