With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Olympic Protester Tommie Smith Reclaims His Legacy in a New Documentary

On October 17, 1968, American track-and-field athlete Tommie Smith won the gold medal for the 200-meter dash at the Olympics in Mexico City. As he took the podium and the National Anthem played, he and his teammate John Carlos raised clenched fists. They were both dressed for protest: each wearing black leather gloves to create a fist representing unity, and black socks and no shoes to symbolize the poverty that African Americans endured. Back then, their raised fists were seen as a symbol of Black Power, aligning them with the Black Panther Party, who to much of the mainstream were a group of dangerous militants. But Smith defined the moment as a symbol of solidarity with the civil rights movement in America. Then and now, Smith says it was a salute to human rights.

While the gesture earned boos in the stadium, this symbol of solidarity helped set a precedent for athletes who had long been taught to keep quiet, and marked a major milestone in athlete activism. Now, sports pros use their platforms for causes, such as Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the National Anthem to protest police brutality, soccer player Megan Rapinoe championing LGBT rights, and LeBron James helping children in need with education. But it all really comes back to Smith.

Smith, who was born in Clarksville, unpacks his loaded gesture in a new documentary that premiered this week on Starz, available on Amazon Prime and Hulu. With Drawn Arms, directed by Glenn Kaino, starts with the Olympics and the aftermath of Smith’s gesture. Fifty years later, we follow Smith throughout the film as he meets Kaepernick and Barack Obama, getting long-overdue acclaim for his activism. 

Smith, who is now 76, speaks from his home in Georgia about meeting Obama, sharing his truth, and his houseplants.


TM: In the film, there are young people who say they haven’t heard of you until recently, because of Colin Kaepernick’s gesture. Do you ever feel erased from history?

TS: There’s a lot of people out there who lived the history I lived way back then. That history is not gone, and it will never die. If you look at yourself in the morning and tell yourself, “I am doing the best I can be,” you are going to be okay.

TM: In terms of the people you met in the movie, from Barack Obama to Kaepernick, what experience stood out to you the most?

TS: Lonnie Bunch, the director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington [who is now the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution]. Because of him, everything I had, the shoes, uniform, anything else he asked for, he pushed the issue for the notoriety and need of respect. I had the motivation to do more than what was necessary. You can’t be necessary some days, but all days. Use that reality to plan your life, you can help a lot of folks.

TM: One of the most touching parts in the film is when John Lewis in the film (filmed before he passed away) said you gave him hope.

TS: That’s one thing I wanted to see happen. I wanted to hear him speak. He was so endowed with honesty and intuitive love. This was a Christian man who sat in Washington and we talked about the reality of growing up as cotton pickers, that’s how we lived. I told him about my parents’ backgrounds. I went to school without shoes on. The same thing happened when I went into Barack Obama’s office, who is a much younger man, but he understood what I was trying to say. But his attention was on saying: “Your wife is a rose.” I wanted to say: “Come on, man! Let’s talk about picking some cotton, or something!” Let’s break it down to reality.

Read entire article at Texas Monthly