Back in 2008 I attended a talk in Los Angeles given by Dr. Tommie Smith who, 40 years before, made that famous gesture at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. He and John Carlos were the two Americans who medaled in the 200-meter race, with Smith winning the gold and Carlos the bronze (the silver was won by Australian Peter Norman ). Each raised black-gloved fists during the playing of the U.S. national anthem, a gesture that forever changed their lives.
The immortal image of these two Americans is one of my earliest memories. Seeing their images on television in 1968 marked the beginning of my awakening. The stand they took helped me to realize that adults were not oblivious to the injustices I was just becoming aware of around me. The America I was learning about in my 4th grade text books was not the America I was seeing in the projects where I lived. As a young girl in the Bronx, I was beginning to realize that there is more than one America. But Smith and Carlos sent a message to the ghetto that said, we don’t have to remain silent.
So when I discovered that Dr. Smith was speaking at the Urban Issues Forum, I had to be there.
The Fastest Man in the World
Now 64, Tommie Smith participated in the 68 Olympics when he was 24-years old. In his book, Silent Gesture, he gives insight into the events that lead to that momentous day in American and world history. He began his talk by telling the audience, “I’m just a man. A regular ol’ country boy from Texas.”
But there was nothing regular about the sacrifice he and John Carlos made back in 1968. As he spoke, he gave the audience bits of his story, the story of a boy who was one of 12 children born to sharecropper parents in Texas. He told how he, his siblings, and parents worked from dawn til midnight just to eat, while the absentee landowner prospered on the backs of their labor. In the early 50s, Smith’s father moved the family to Central California to try to give them a better life.
Eventually, Tommie Smith would become known as the “fastest man in the world” – at one time holding 11 world records simultaneously. You might expect this to be a rags-to-riches story. Unfortunately, it isn’t.
When Smith and Carlos raised their fists on that day in October 1968, they were rendered personae non gratae in the eyes of the establishment. They had committed the ultimate sin — airing America’s dirty laundry before the world. There would be no Wheaties cereal box covers in their futures. They’d be lucky if they weren’t killed. Smith told the audience, who had assembled at the California African-American Museum, of his fear of being shot. That fear stayed with him for more than a decade.
His concerns had a basis in truth. They were rooted in a history that repeatedly reminds black men that they are members of a unique group of Americans—a group whose individual members are regularly portrayed as dangerous and scary but, in fact, who are the most vulnerable and least safe in America. The ‘68 Olympics were held just months after the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In Texas, Smith was raised in a setting where lynchings were a fact of life deep into the 20th Century. Often they were discussed in hushed tones by adults when they thought their children were asleep. These young men—Smith and Carlos and others like them—had legitimate reasons to fear for their lives.
So, Was It Worth It?
During the question-and-answer session after Dr. Smith finished his talk, I watched and listened as black people, most of which were younger than I, talked to Smith about the impact the image had on their lives. They could not have been old enough to remember the event. But since 1968, the image has taken on a life of its own, continuing to inspire and motivate the generation born after 1968.
I should know. I have reflected on the image at various times of difficulty throughout my own life. Each time I’ve come across it, I am reminded of the sacrifices, both known and unknown, made by people who didn’t even know me so that I could have a better life.
After the ’68 Olympics, Smith had difficulty earning a living. Finally he was able to establish himself at Santa Monica College where he had long career as coach, athletic director, and educator.
Unlike the 1968 Games, the announcement of the location of the 2008 Olympic Games sparked an onslaught of protest from a broad cross section of groups in the West. Based on accusations of various human rights violations—including state-sanctioned torture of political prisoners, use of the death penalty for crimes that don’t involve loss of life, forced abortions, religious persecution, and others—these groups have mounted a campaign to bring attention to these atrocities.
Some argue that the Olympic Games shouldn’t be used in this way. But Smith says, “If this is not the place, then where is the place?” Where is the place where the oppressed can say to the world “look at what is being done here.” Major improvements in the lives of oppressed groups have often occurred when their governments have been shamed into making change.
The decision Smith and Carlos made in 1968 took a toll on their lives, as they knew it would. John Carlos’ wife committed suicide in part because of the pressure placed on her family in the aftermath of her husband’s symbolic act. Even now, I am struck by the lack of mention of Smith and Carlos on the 2008 Official Beijing Olympic website with its extensive photo gallery dating back to the 1920 Antwerp Games. But their salute and the image it immortalized is nowhere to be found.
I’m reminded daily that we still have a long way to go. In researching this article, I happened upon a movie trailer entitled, Salute — The Movie. I was delighted to discover that a movie depicting the details of the events leading up to that momentous day in 1968 was produced for a 2008 release. I encourage you to take a look at it. After you have viewed it, please drop me a note with your thoughts.
The Olympic Games are one of the largest media events in the world. I, for one, will be watching as Beijing is cast into the spotlight. Let’s hope, for the people of Tibet, Darfur, and Inner Mongolia, that they have a moment when the whole world pays attention to what is happening there.
Sharon Kyle is the Publisher of the LA Progressive. With her husband Dick, she publishes several other print and online newsletters on political and social justice issues. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.