52 years later, Olympic icon Tommie Smith still stands for change

Sports

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Sometimes, a picture tells more than a thousand words, even when the athlete in that picture didn’t use words to convey his message.

And during the times in which we’re living, a moment in history is as powerful now as it ever has been.

WOOD TV8 Sports Director Jack Doles spoke with Dr. Tommie Smith, an Olympian whose silent protest during the 1968 Summer Olympics became the stuff of legends.

It was Martin Luther King Jr. who said: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

“The constitution provides an avenue to speak freely,” Smith said. “So then when we speak, be satisfied with what you’ve done and understand that there might be repercussions.”

And Smith knows that all too well. But the repercussions he dealt with weren’t from spoken words. They came from a silent protest.

Smith represented Team USA in the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. Martin Luther King Jr. had just been assassinated and the country was in turmoil, with racial tensions running deep and civic unrest rocking the United States to its core.

Moments after winning a gold medal in the 200 meters, Smith had a difficult decision to make: accept the medal and do nothing for a cause that burned inside him or stand up for social justice and live with the consequences.

“When I walked up on that victory stand, it was rather a love-hate (situation). I was hurt because of what I had to do: take my life and put it so people can see the validity of love, not hate. That wasn’t a hate crime I committed,” Smith said.

He stood shoeless on the gold-medal podium, with John Carlos next to him as the National Anthem played. Both raised a gloved fist in the air. It was a black power salute.

“It wasn’t to degrade the flag,” Smith said. “It was not to hurt anyone that had a concept of moving forward equally. It was a pride and joy, cry for freedom. Through the constitutional efforts that had already been given to us. But taken back every day.”

Taking a stand for equality brought Smith and John Carlos unimaginable hardships.

“Sacrifice is something a lot of people don’t have the heart for. Because they cannot see the future. Or understand something that has happened in the past,” Smith said. “A plethora of people died so I could be there.”

Smith and Carlos were kicked out of the Olympics. For Smith, death threats, homelessness and a broken family were his reward.

But so much had happened before he reached the starting line in Mexico City that in his mind, doing nothing was not an option.

“We were not going to move forward if everyone sat at the table with big feet and ate all the food and looked at everyone else and said, ‘Do you have any more?’ Use your own creating of moving forward. Being full of what you have to give, not take everything,” he said.

Fast forward 52 years and that silent protest is one of the most iconic moments in Olympic history. But how much has really changed since then?

Protests, some silent and some not, have been raging across the country. The focus has shifted from the black power movement of the 60s to Black Lives Matter. Yet the message and the cry for justice hasn’t changed.

“It’s very sad. But sometimes, things happen this way for things to live,” Smith said. “It’s too bad democracy had to have lives lost just to pursue what was guaranteed in the constitution.”

Smith is saddened, but also encouraged, to see black and white march together, fighting for the same thing he did when he raised his fist in 1968. 

“Young folks, congratulations. You are picking up the baton. What a lot of people dropped, and you are moving it forward.  I like that and I stand with you 100%,” Smith said.

At the same time, he cautions those who protest and speak out and to be prepared to back it up.

“Believe it and have a background (of) why. You will have followers, but you will also have interpretations of bad within that group of good.  If you believe it from the heart, you cannot fail,” he said.

And 52 years later, that podium is Tommie Smith’s platform. He’s as committed to social justice now as he was then and says people must keep the pressure on to keep the movement moving.

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