Forty-five years have elapsed since Smith, son of an East Texas sharecropper, and Harlem native John Carlos, who grew up between the Savoy Ballroom and the Cotton Club, mounted the medal podium at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City and projected a Black Power salute, which became the most powerful image in the annals of sports or protest.
Smith is a familiar figure in his Smoke Rise subdivision, but few of his neighbors have an inkling of his prominent and controversial place in Black History.
That year he was a track star at San Jose State University, where 18 months earlier an activist sociology professor had mentored the introverted Smith and other athletes to take an interest in the civil rights struggle.
“Dr. Harry Edwards and the rest of us thought it very necessary for young black athletes to get involved in the social movement of our country,” Smith said.
San Jose State was a track powerhouse at the time and Smith was one of America’s top sprinters, setting world records in the 400 meters and 200 meters. The young athletes, Smith and teammate Carlos, agreed with Edwards that they should form the Olympic Project for Human Rights and leverage their status to call for a boycott of the Olympics unless certain conditions were met. Among other things, the athletes called on the International Olympic Committee to bar apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia from the Games.
Smith said they received death threats as they traveled the country trying to build support for their efforts. The boycott effort fizzled after the IOC did indeed keep the two racially repressive countries out of the Olympics.
“At the last [OPHR] meeting we had, it was decided there would be no boycott and each athlete would represent himself according to how he felt about a country that didn’t represent them,” Smith recalled last week. “And that gave the flexibility to each athlete to make his own gesture of protest. So I felt that I would do what I thought was necessary.”
In Mexico City, Smith and Carlos placed first and third respectively in the Olympic 200 meters, winning the gold and bronze medals. He didn’t just win. Smith blazed across the finish line in a world record time of 19.83 seconds. That time remained a world record until 1979 and an Olympic record until 1984.
But jubilation turned to shock for some fans and U.S. Olympic officials, then anger.
‘Silent gesture’ courageous
On the victory stand at the medal awards ceremony, Smith and Carlos donned black gloves, and as The Star-Spangled Banner was played, the men raised clenched fists high above their heads in a Black Power salute. They also wore badges that read “OPHR,” black socks to symbolize black poverty in a corrosively racist American society, and black scarves for black pride.
The scene witnessed by a packed stadium and millions of TV viewers had immediate impact and became one of the iconic images of the turbulent late 1960s.
Smith believes the intent of the “silent gesture” was the opposite of what many people may think.
“To me it was a respectful gesture because our heads were bowed in prayer and not looking at the flag. I thought prayer was more important than standing with my hand over my heart and thinking about all the money I was gonna make because I won the gold medal.”
The crowd in the huge Olympic stadium booed Smith and Carlos as they left the victory stand.
The silent gesture was a courageous move that sent a powerful visual message but turned the two young athletes’ personal lives upside down.
Avery Brundage, the American who headed the IOC at the time, pressured the U.S. Olympic Committee to boot both men from the Games.
Smith said he and Carlos received more death threats after returning home and for several years the Olympic heroes had trouble finding work.
“I had to take a job in a carwash and anything else that would pay the bills,” Smith said.
Profound social upheaval in 1968
The personal act of protest is best viewed in the context of those times. 1968 was a year of profound social upheaval, when Americans were re-examining long-held values and beliefs.
Early that year, the Tet offensive launched by communist forces against U.S. troops in Vietnam turned millions of Americans against the war as prospects for a quick end to the fighting grew dim. Thousands of college students took to the streets in war protests. Riots broke out in 100 cities after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4. And just eight weeks later, on June 5, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated.
President Lyndon Johnson in a televised address announced a halt to the bombing of North Vietnam and a call for peace talks, then shocked the nation by revealing that he would not seek a second term as president. That August, millions of TV viewers watched in horror as bloody battles between police and war protesters upstaged the Democratic Convention in Chicago.
Australian 200 silver medalist Peter Norman also wore an OPHR badge on the podium in solidarity.
Before that international stage, Smith began running in grade school in Lemoore, Calif., when as a fourth-grader he was asked to race against the fastest runner in the school (his sister Sally). He went on to become the only man in history of track and field to hold 11 world records simultaneously. By the time he graduated from high school, he had been voted “Most Valuable Athlete” three years straight in basketball, football, and track and field.
His college career was highlighted with many achievements. He started striving and breaking world records in track as a sophomore and did not stop until he had tied or broken 13 records.
After the Games of the 19th Olympiad, Smith played professional football under the legendary Paul Brown with the Cincinnati Bengals for three years. He went on to become an assistant professor of physical education at Oberlin College in Ohio, where he taught sports sociology and physical education courses, counseled students and athletes who sought his expertise and advice, coached track and field as well as football and basketball, and served as athletic director.
He was also a faculty member at Santa Monica College in California, where he taught sociology, health and physical education classes and was the men’s cross country and track and field coach.
In 1996, Smith was inducted into the California Black Sports Hall of Fame. In 1999, he received the Sportsman of the Millennium Award and was inducted into the Bay Area Hall of Fame along with Ronny Lott, Joe Montana and others. And in November that year, he was inducted into the Lemoore Union High School Hall of Fame and the San Jose State University Sports Hall of Fame.
He and wife Delois have been Stone Mountain residents since 2005.
“Our daughter attended Clark Atlanta University, and when we came here for a campus visit we fell in love with the beauty of the area and great housing values before the bust,” Smith said.
Last year, “Salute,” a poignant documentary on the three runners and the turmoil of 1968 directed by Norman’s nephew, Matt, was released in London. Norman died of a heart attack on Oct. 3, 2006, at age 64. Smith and Carlos were among his pallbearers.
Smith, who went to London to promote the film, told British “Newsnight” that in 1968 he was on a world stage, implementing a need for human actions.
“People were sedentary in their lives, not realizing the need for a coalition of understanding,” he said.
Today, nearly five decades later, that Black Power salute stands as a seminal moment in the Olympic movement.
Smith said it was important to make the protest count.
“If you’re going to do something, make sure it’s seen, make sure it’s respectful, nonviolent and has some intellectual power behind it,” he said. “The socks, the fists, the way we stood, the bowed heads, the military posture, not slouching, was something people could remember.”