When sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their black gloved fists on the Olympic podium after winning medals in the 100-meter sprint in Mexico City, neither one of them knew that the defiant gesture would be etched in the annals of Olympic history and change their lives forever.
The year was 1968 and America was at the height of the civil rights movement. Dr. Martin Luther King had been assassinated three months before, and Smith and Carlos were among the athletes who were intent on making a statement to the world about conditions facing blacks in America.
Little did they know that the defiant gesture would cost them to pay a precious price for years.
Smith was the guest of The Urban Issues Breakfast Forum of Greater Los Angeles at the California African American Museum, where he recalled the fateful moments that ushered him into track and field Olympic history.
“Anybody who has ever watched a sporting event in the world has seen this man’s image,” said Samad. “He created one of the most defiant images at the Olympic Games. They expelled him from the Olympic Games and they said it was one of the most defining moments in the history of the Olympics.’
Smith said that a boycott was organized and that some athletes refused to go to Mexico, including Lou Alcindor, now known as Kareem Abdul Jabbar. “But some of the athletes said, ‘We’re going to represent.’ The black athletes understood the significance of the movement. They sent Jesse Owens to talk to the brothers to ensure that they would do nothing to embarrass the United States.
“When they fired that gun, they didn’t see blacks run that fast, ever,” recalls Smith, who won gold in the 200-meter finals and set a world record in 19.83 seconds. Carlos came in at number three and won the bronze medal.
But it was the racial turmoil that was occurring in America and the death of King that weighed heavily on their minds. “Even though they killed the prince of peace, they couldn’t kill our spirit, especially when we climbed upon the winner’s stand,” Smith recalls.
Smith said that it was his poverty stricken upbringing that impressed upon him that change was needed. “My mother and father couldn’t read. I saw my father strap those leather straps on his shoulders and lead his two mules as he tilled the soil from sunup to sundown. At dinner, he would be so tired that when mama put cornbread in his mouth and he would chew, he didn’t even remember that he had eaten.”
Although a dispute continues between Smith and Carlos regarding who thought of the idea of the raised fists and who distributed the black glove, both men are aware that their gesture will always be remembered as a dramatic moment in the 1968 Olympic games.
Smith said that after he and Carlos raised their fists, critics asked them why they did not make the gesture in Los Angeles during the pre-Olympic trials, thus sparing the world their defiant gesture. “They said, ‘You embarrassed America because you aired our dirty laundry in front of other countries.’”
Smith said that he and Carlos received swift and immediate backlash for their actions. “When we got back to San Jose State, nobody was there to greet us,” Smith recalls. “We had to thumb our way from the airport. We were broke. After Mexico City, I had no help whatsoever. I died on the vine. I was even put down by my own people,” Smith recalls. “I had to have the faith of a mustard seed.”
More hardships followed. Both men received death threats. Smith’s attempts to play pro football, both in the NFL and the CFL, were short lived. He eventually earned his masters degree in sociology. Later, he taught at Oberlin College and coached at Santa Monica College.
After a stint in pro football, Carlos tried to survive on odd jobs and played football briefly before he found work as an in-house counselor at Palm Springs High School. Carlos blames the suicide of his first wife partly on the post-Olympic pressures the couple faced.
Smith said that raising his fist during the 1968 Olympic Games was one of the defining moments in his life. “I’m just a regular old country boy from the backwoods of Texas,” said Smith. “It took all of my 24 years to say what I wanted to say in 15 or 20 seconds on that Olympic victory stand.”
No longer considered radicals for their act of defiance, both men were awarded honorary degrees at San Jose State and the school also erected a statue in their honor. They were inducted into the USA Track & Field Hall of Fame and HBO recently aired a documentary on their achievements entitled “Fists of Freedom.”