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Interview: Gold-Medalist Tommie Smith on His Historic Black Power Salute at 1968 Olympics

The raised fists of two African-American Olympic medal winners at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, is one of the most iconic images of our time. Today in honor of black history month, we look back at that moment and the men who made it happen. The 1968 Olympics were among the most controversial Olympics ever held — buffeted by the Vietnam War, the Democratic Convention in Chicago, and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. The U.S. Civil Rights movement was grappling with the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King. And ten days before the Olympics were scheduled to open in October, scores of Mexico City University students were killed by army troops.

Officials at the Olympic Games managed to quell any disruption until two black Americans, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who finished first and third in the 200-meter run, bowed their heads and, at great personal risk to themselves, raised their fists in the Black Power salute during the national anthem as a protest against racism in the U.S.

Tommie Smith joins me now from Atlanta. His new autobiography is called “Silent Gesture.” David Steele is the co-author of the book. He is a sports columnist with the Baltimore Sun and he joins us now on the phone.

AMY GOODMAN: Tommie Smith now joins me from Atlanta. His new autobiography is called Silent Gesture. David Steele is coauthor of the book. He’s a sports columnist with the Baltimore Sun. He joins us on the phone. I want to welcome you both to Democracy Now!

Tommie Smith, bring us back to this moment in Mexico City.

TOMMIE SMITH: In retrospect -- hello, David, by the way. In retrospect, it was a time when, of course, as mentioned earlier, social change, the assassinations, the apartheid situation was very strong, the Democratic convention -- a lot of things was changing, especially on college campuses. The students were, I think, ready for a change, and I think they prompted the issue, the situation, by getting involved themselves. And, of course, being a college senior and an athlete on the world level, I was asked many times over, not just by students, but by politicians and sociologists, what was my take on the different changes and the system that didn't represent those who had put in work in terms of lives from slavery to that point and what would be my contribution to the feeling, to the need to bring about a change, so the future generations must understand that it was history, and it is history, and that must be addressed.

So I was one of the people that was brought to the opening of that door to walk through and speak on terms of the change, which I was a part of. And I’m still to this day not unhappy because of what happened. In fact, I’m very happy and very proud that -- it took forty years, but people are finally beginning to see that what happened in ’68 wasn't a dejection of the American flag, only the way that an African American was treated in a country that did not represent them in terms of their input in the growth of that country.

AMY GOODMAN: So, explain the moment. First of all, you were actually injured before this race from a previous race that you had won.

TOMMIE SMITH: Yeah, yeah. The pressures of that moment was great. And when you're running 28-plus miles an hour with the appendages going different directions, you're likely then to go in the direction which you are aiming to go, which is straight forward. In fact, I injured that muscle after I crossed the tape, slowing down. It was an adductor muscle that line the legs toward the front to make them run straight and not to the side. As I hit the tape, slowed down, of course, there was a curve. And anyone who runs 200 meters know once you finish there's a curve, where the 400-meter relay and the 100-meter starts. 400-meter relay starts 100 meters in. And around the turn, I kind of forgot the speed I was going and the need to slow down under control. So my left leg kind of went out of line, because of the inside leg around the turn, and I just stretched that muscle, and I hit the ground, because it was very painful. Yes, indeed, painful.

AMY GOODMAN: And yet, you won the next race. I mean, you are the only man in track and field history to hold eleven world records simultaneously. When you got down, when you were just about to run that final race that you won the gold medal for, the 200-meter race, what were you thinking as you were about to start that race? You had more on your mind than the actual physical race.

TOMMIE SMITH: Yeah. God help me. I needed more help than man could supply, so I called on the strongest thing that I had backing me, which was my non-secular belief. I knew that I was brought there for a reason, and I knew that I could not, could not, stand the pressures by myself. You know, when I pulled a muscle and hit the ground, they took me into the training room to ice it. It was a groin area -- G-R-O-I-N, not G-R-O-W-I-N-G -- and where they put the ice was not very comfortable, but I know that I had to withstand that coldness, that pressure, to isolate that particular area and put as much cold on it to keep the blood from flowing through it as quickly as possible, so the swelling wouldn't be so great. And when I got to the starting line, I could not -- and the review tapes will reveal this -- I could not take any practice starts.

Now, here I am, the world record holder in two events. I held a world record in the 200 meters and the 400 meters during the 1968 Olympic Games. The team was so strong, they didn't need the world record holder in the 400 meters to run the 400 meters, nor the four-by-four. So here I was with one event to run, and I was hampered by a pulled groin area muscle, and standing behind the blocks viewing eight other men who were the fastest in the world, and I held the world record, injured. So the pressures was mightiful. But my training in my four years of competition, I trained biologically and mentally to withstand any pressure that man could handle. But when you pull a muscle, of course, that takes the control completely out of the hand of man, because that body is injured. You cannot really pull from that area of the body. So I had to work around -- mentally I had to work around that muscle and use every other muscle to maintain a stride. And with a stride of nine feet long, it's very difficult to run with the power needed with that inside leg injured.

So here I am, standing, watching John Carlos, watching Bob Fray, watching Peter Norman. These people had run very low 20s -- 20.1, 20.3. -- and I was traumatized. In fact, I forgot I had that pulled muscle. When the starter said, “Get on your marks,” and I had to pray, a silent prayer. “Get set.” I said it's been fourteen years of training, and it's all coming to a head at this point. And when the gun sounded, of course, my mind had to go back to the biological parts necessary to run a race as fast as I could with 85% or 90% of my muscle structure intact.
Noticing the race, if you see me coming out of the blocks, my left leg was not as strong as my right. And if you notice going down the straightaway, when I went past John Carlos, you could see my head move with my right leg, emphasizing the right stride was stronger than the left stride. So, and I was very happy to win the race, as you could see, because my arms went up. My arms did not go up in trying to be Mr. Bad or trying to be recognized. I held eleven world records. There was no recognition necessary for me to do, but just to win the race. And it was a scientific race run, one of the best scientific races I’ve ever run, but not one of my best races.

AMY GOODMAN: In fact, putting up your arms in that way actually slowed you down, didn't it?

TOMMIE SMITH: Yeah. Yeah, of course. I’ve been teaching and coaching for forty years, and I never told my athletes, male or female, to raise their hands in jubilation before they cross the tape. It's not a very wise thing. In fact, I call it stupid. So, you could say part of my race was innocently stupid, because I did not raise my arms trying to be justified as the greatest athlete in the world, only in jubilation that with the politics that was surrounding Tommie Smith's soul, I was happy to win that race with that injured leg. I certainly was.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, let's talk about the next time you raised your arms. It was one, and it was a gloved black fist, along with John Carlos, who was with you at San Jose State. You ran together in college. Let's talk about that moment. You win the race. He's third. Peter Norman had just edged him out, was second. So there were the three of you. When was the award ceremony in relation to the race? And how did you prepare?

TOMMIE SMITH: Well, the award ceremony was very quickly, something like an hour and a half to two hours. And going back a moment to correct a belief a lot of people have is that John Carlos and Tommie Smith ran together at San Jose State University: we did not run together at San Jose State University. I was a senior when John Carlos transferred from East Texas State in Commerce, Texas, to come to San Jose. NCAA rules implies that a transfer from a four-year to a four-year must pass twenty-four units and a year in residence at that particular college. So we did not run together on the team. We ran on some summer teams at AU and -- oh, goodness, what was the club? -- Santa Clara Youth Village, but we did not run on the team.
Now, since that's straight, the physical sight you saw on the victory stand was not decided a year and a half before, like the Olympic Project for Human Rights. The Olympic Project for Human Rights was discussed, situated, over a year in advance of Mexico City. But the arms raised was not one of those situations.

Why did John Carlos and Tommie Smith do what they did? Simple, in terms of what was happening then. The boycott obviously did not happen, and this was because the athletes decided not to boycott. Once again, it was very organized. This Olympic Project for Human Rights or OPHR was very organized, and the athletes -- all of the athletes who partook had something to say about whether they were going to compete or not. And the strong factor about the Olympic Project for Human Rights is, whatever the decision was, every athlete would masterfully take a part in that. So it was decided: no boycott. But Ralph Boston, I think -- he was -- Ralph Boston was the moderator of that meeting, the last meeting we had before competition, and it was decided that each athlete would represent themselves according to how they felt about OPHR and the misuse of the African American in the American system, especially the athlete.

So, John Carlos and Tommie Smith decided in the dungeon, only a few minutes before the victory stand, what they were going to do. I had asked my wife earlier to bring me a pair of gloves from California. She had not left to come to Mexico yet. So I asked her to bring me gloves after the meeting. And I didn’t know what I was going to do with the gloves, but I knew I had to make a representation of my feelings, and it would have to be silent, had to be respectful, and it would have to be visual. And this is the raised fist. I had the right glove, John Carlos had the left glove. They were gloves, which my wife brought from California. And it was a cry for freedom. When both fists went up in the air, very justified in that they went up, not undignified or disrespect to the flag. We did face the flag. We didn't turn our back on the flag. But it was a silent gesture. It was a prayer in hope that our system would become a stronger system in representing all of its people equally, human, and civilly.

AMY GOODMAN: We're talking to Tommie Smith. This is one of the most famous gestures in photographs, that picture of the three Olympic winners: Tommie Smith, John Carlos and Peter Norman. In a minute, we're going to talk about the significance of Peter Norman standing there, who recently died, an Australian runner, a white runner, and how he fit into this picture. But I want to turn for a moment to David Steele who co-wrote the book with Tommie Smith, Silent Gesture.

David Steele, you’re a sports columnist for the Baltimore Sun. Why did you decide to get involved with this project with Tommie Smith?

DAVID STEELE: I think just because I was so surprised that nothing had been done up to that point. Coach Smith and I had started talking about five years ago about doing this. And I, at the time it was suggested, didn't believe that nothing had ever been on the record from him in great length about how it was done. I had kind of assumed that something had been done back in the late ’60s or early ’70s and that it had probably been a bestseller, and there probably had been a movie made, and all these sort of things. And for a moment that was that significant, that changed so many lives and that everybody remembers, you know, immediately -- I mean, all you’ve got to do is sort of throw your fist in the air and everybody knows what you're doing; it's an instantly recognized gesture all over the world -- I was surprised that most people -- really, really almost no people really knew what the story was or really knew what had happened to him since then.
I had spoken to him a couple years before for an article in late 1999, where Coach Smith had received an award as the Athlete of the Millennium by one of the sports organizations, and totally understandable because of what he did. And I, at that point that I called him, really wasn't clear on what had happened to him and what had gone on in his life in the previous thirty years. And I was surprised to know that nobody else had really done it. And it was just my belief, and I think it’s sort of being proven now, that a lot of people are very interested in what the repercussions were and also what path he took to get there. And I just felt it was a very important story to tell.

AMY GOODMAN: And what effect do you think this has had on sports -- what, more than, well, almost forty years later?

DAVID STEELE: I think that it's recognized as really just kind of a rare statement. I think that everybody who watches sports today, they sort of take certain things for granted that they're just in it for the money, they don't really have any social consciousness, they don't really pay much attention, they’re just sort of detached from society, they’re not really affected by the things that affect most of society and certainly African American society in this country. But they all point at the people who, in contrast, did take those sort of stands and were fully engaged in what happened in society. They look at the Mohammad Alis, they look at the Jim Browns, they look at the Bill Russells, they look at the Tommie Smiths and John Carloses, and say, “That's really the ideal. That's really what we should do, and this is what we can do.”

And we really kind of owe a debt to them to, because of what they did, because it goes so much against the grain. It went against the grain of most of the athletes before him. It went against the grain of a lot of the athletes who were there with him. I mean, he tells the story several times in the book about all the people there at the Olympics, who were very -- I don't want to necessarily say “afraid,” but very reluctant to make the sort of gesture that he did. And it would be hard to find anybody today that would make that sort of gesture. But they know that it's been made, and that it really changed not just sports, but all of society, and not just black society, but everything in America and also ideas and thoughts all around the world. And I think that people just always will hold onto that and understand what a liberating moment that was and how important it was to the struggle that everybody went through back in the 1960s.

I’m a little too young to really remember all of it, but I know that there's a real good possibility I might not be a sports columnist at a paper like the Sun, if it wasn't for people like Tommie Smith and Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, doing the things that they did back then and really opening society's eyes in ways that athletes could and maybe a lot of other seemingly more powerful people couldn’t.

AMY GOODMAN: Tommie Smith, that moment when you put your hand up in the fist and you had a black glove over it, people often say the two right arms and a fist, but, of course, it wasn't, because you only had one pair of gloves, so one of you wore the right and one of you wore the left, you and John Carlos. But then, there's also the bottom part of that picture -- your feet -- that you and John Carlos were not wearing shoes, were not wearing your sneakers or your running shoes, as they call it today. You were wearing black socks. Explain the significance of these socks.

TOMMIE SMITH: As I said earlier, we had to make it respectful and visual. Of course, the gloves represented power. The bare feet represented poverty. We took our shoes off, rolled our uniform, which was blue, up around our gastrocnemius muscle, and to make visual the need for a security in the way that people were being treated, jobs that we did not have, which we should have. And, you know, this is not a representation just of black athletes. It was our entire community -- in fact, people of color most anywhere. So this Olympic Project for Human Rights didn't just represent the black athlete or the black citizen in the country. It was a cry for freedom for those who had no way to make justified their feelings.

Sure, there were the athletes on our team. They chose other ways to make it necessary to be visual. Some just wore black socks, like Ralph Boston. Some wore tams, like the four-by-four relay. And the others simply raised their hands. Some simply did nothing. But John Carlos and Tommie Smith decided to make something visual, because the Olympic Project for Human Rights started on the San Jose State campus in ’67 to highlight a situation dealing directly with the athlete.

And, of course, it got bigger, because the athletic world is a small microcosm of the entire society. In fact, it's one of the biggest money-making projects in the world now, athletics in its totality. So we certainly deemed it necessary to make it viable for other people to link onto the need to be totally free. And it was called the -- it was a cry for freedom. And the shoes, the Puma shoes that we had was a representation of our respect for the company who supplied us with those uniforms. And it was very --
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to play an excerpt of an interview with fellow Olympic medalist Peter Norman, that re-aired on the Australian Broadcasting Company in October of last year, right after Norman died of a heart attack. Peter Norman was the Australian sprinter, silver medal-winner, who stood on the dais with Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the victory ceremony. The interviewer asked Peter Norman how it made him feel that his presence at the ceremony overshadowed his Olympic win.

PETER NORMAN: It makes me pretty proud to be part of a demonstration that has lasted this long, that was as meaningful as it was, that had this response over the years. The things that were going on in the States and, indeed, all around the world, but more importantly in the States, the things that were going on with the riots and everything, and amid all this anger, the hostility, the violence, here’s two guys that after an Olympic event sacrificed what would probably have been the greatest moment in their life, as far as personal glory is concerned. And they sacrificed that to pay homage to the cause that they felt so strongly about.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Peter Norman, the Australian sprinter who came in second and stood on the dais with Tommie Smith and John Carlos. David Steele, Tommie Smith and John Carlos were the pallbearers at Peter Norman's funeral just a few months ago. The significance of this white athlete standing with the two black athletes? I believe he had said he would have worn a glove, except that they only had one pair, and there wasn't enough for him.

TOMMIE SMITH: And he ended up wearing a button.

AMY GOODMAN: For the Olympic Project for Human Rights?

TOMMIE SMITH: For the Olympic Project for Human Rights, which -- that was extremely powerful. And I think that it really sort of opened the eyes for everybody that this wasn't just a struggle of a couple of black athletes, it wasn't just a struggle for black people in the United States; it was something that had meaning to the entire world. And like Coach Smith said, this was the biggest possible athletic stage. I mean, probably the two greatest -- well, maybe the two greatest titles in sports are Olympic gold medalists in whatever sport you’re in and heavyweight champion of the world. And so, you can sort of see the importance of what all those athletes at that level were able to do to sort of move people and change people's minds. And the fact that Peter Norman was not afraid to engage himself in that and that he was eager to engage himself, that really made the statement even more powerful.

And I feel privileged that I got a chance to meet him before he passed, because a year before that, when they dedicated the statue to Tommie Smith and John Carlos at San Jose State University, Peter Norman came to the ceremony and spoke and then got a chance to speak to everybody individually, to do interviews, and to pose on the statue itself with his fist raised. And it was just a beautiful thing to know that after forty years, he never felt any regret or any anger or any frustration that his moment as a silver medalist, to be one of the two fastest people really in the world, because that was such an incredible race, one of the fastest ever run at that time, that he never felt that those two took anything from him, that they actually gave something to him by bringing him into this operation. And it was great to see that they stayed such close friends, and it was very powerful to know that they went to be his pallbearers. So he was a big part of this, that I really hope people don't forget.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you, David Steele, for being with us, sports columnist for the Baltimore Sun, coauthor with Tommie Smith, who I want to thank also, who was with us in Atlanta, who wrote Silent Gesture: The Autobiography of Tommie Smith.
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