“I had no regrets, I have no regrets, I will never have any regrets. We were there to stand up for human rights and to stand up for black Americans. We wanted to make them better in the United States.”
Tommie Smith, a track and field legend, said this after a controversial protest that he and fellow American teammate John Carlos launched at the 1968 Olympic Games. After coming from nothing, Tommie Smith emerged as a high profile track star in college, and eventually went on to compete in the Olympics. It was there that he and Carlos sparked a protest for social and racial equality that would forever change not only their lives, but also the role of African Americans in athletics.
After placing 1st and 3rd, respectively, in the Olympic 200 meter final, Tommie Smith and John Carlos decided that as members of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, they should use this opportunity to take a stand for equality.
When Smith and Carlos walked out of the stadium tunnel, they each held their shoes behind their backs and wore black socks, as a symbol of the black poverty they and others had come from. Tommie Smith wore a black scarf in order to show black pride, and John Carlos had his jacket unzipped to show his solidarity with all the blue-collar workers. Carlos also wore a beaded necklace that, as he said, “was for those individuals that were lynched, or killed and that no-one said a prayer for, that were hung and tarred. It was for those thrown off the side of the boats in the middle passage.” (The middle passage is the term referring to the trip captured Africans were forced to make from Africa to America to become slaves).
They received their medals, and then, as the National Anthem began to play, lowered their heads and raised one black gloved fist to crowd, performing what was later called “The Black Power Salute”. Their silent gesture of social and racial equality extended throughout the entire National Anthem, and when it was finished they each bowed to the boo’s emanating from the crowd, and turned and walked out of the stadium. Tommie Smith said of the gesture, “If I win, I am American, not a black American. But if I did something bad, then they would say I am a Negro. We are black and we are proud of being black. Black America will understand what we did tonight.”
This stand for equality was not without repercussions. The Olympic chairmen were furious that such an action had been taken, especially by and for African Americans. As a result of their actions, both Tommie Smith and John Carlos were kicked off the U.S. Olympic team and expelled from the Olympic Village. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) stripped them of their medals and banned them from all other Olympic competition.
When they travelled back to their homes, they and their families received constant death threats. They were also social outcasts. Tommie Smith’s mother later died of a heart attack as a result of her stress from receiving manure and dead rats in the mail from local farmers. John Carlos’ wife committed suicide because she could not stand life as an outcast. But never once did either of the two men regret their actions.
Tommie Smith was a man who spoke out for social equality, without speaking at all. He answered the cry for help among those discriminated against, without giving out a cry himself. As the great Arthur Ashe said, he “forever changed the image of the black athlete” in a silent gesture that stood out among the chaos of the turbulent year of 1968. Because at the Summer Olympic Games of that year, along with fellow civil rights leader John Carlos, he raised one black gloved fist to the crowd, as the National Anthem played, and changed the path of racial discrimination forever.
Aaseng, Nathan. “Smith, Tommie” African American Athletes, A to Z of African Americans. New York
Hartmann, Douglas. Race, Culture, and the Revolt of the Black Athlete, University of Chicago Press, 2003
Slot, Owen. “Olympics: Tommie Smith and John Carlos Warn of the Price of Protest” The Times April 12, 2008 Times Online April 14, 2009 http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/sport/olympics/article3732202.ece
Smith, Tommie and David Steele Silent Gesture Temple University Press, 2007
“Smith, Tommie”. Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia 2009. Grolier Online, 25 March 2009 http://gme.grolier.com/cgi-bin/article?assetid=0269455-0