His actions led to death threats and vilification, but Tommie Smith says he has no regrets about making the Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics.
Ask Tommie Smith if he was scared in the moments that led up to him demonstrating the now iconic Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, and the answer is heartfelt: “I was too scared to be scared.”
To say Smith’s response is understandable would be an understatement. Just thinking about the former sprinter taking a stand against racial inequality in the United States – and making that silent protest in front of the world’s media, whilst on the podium for collecting an Olympic gold medal in the 200 meters men’s finals – is enough to make one shudder.
At the height of America’s Civil Rights movement – and just six months after the assassination of Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr – Smith, and fellow Black American athlete John Carlos (who scooped the bronze medal in the 200m race), took to the podium, each donning Black socks and no shoes, and one Black glove.
As if those actions weren’t significant enough, both used their moment of glory to throw their gloved hand in the air in a fisted salute, as a silent protest against the racial injustices faced by Black people in their American homeland.
The image of Smith and Carlos on the podium – along with Australian athlete and silver medalist Peter Norman, who also made a stand by wearing an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge in support of the Americans’ protest – went on to become one of the most iconic images in Olympic history.
Did Smith have any idea his actions would have such an impact throughout the world?
“No, I had no idea,” said the 68-year-old. “I didn’t wanna do it child – I didn’t wanna do it. But I felt it was necessary because I was Tommie Smith; holder of 11 world records and I was looked up to by society, mostly Black society. So I had a responsibility to stand up and say something. God gave me the ability to be healthy and run fast and that, in turn, gave me the opportunity to take a stand.”
Recently flown into London by UK organisation Operation Black Vote (OBV), who seek to ensure greater racial justice and equality throughout the UK, Smith described his visit to the UK as “a pleasure.”
“I was flown over by OBV and it’s been wonderful finding out out about what they do, which is synonymous with what I do. Inspiring youth and showing people the importance of proactivity of life – that’s what I’ve been doing since Mexico City and even before then.”
Aside from being in England to promote the UK release of Salute – an insightful documentary about the lives and Olympic protests of himself, Carlos and Norman – Smith’s trip to Britain couldn’t have been more timely.
Not only did his visit come just weeks before London is set to host this year’s Olympic Games, it also coincided with the week that saw footballer John Terry plead not guilty and subsequently be cleared of racially abusing Anton Ferdinand – despite the Chelsea captain admitting to calling Ferdinand a “black co*n” during a match last October.
Ever since the Terry/Ferdinand saga first reared its head, one sentiment that became raised by many in the UK’s Black community was disappointment at what appeared to be a lack of united support for Ferdinand from fellow Black footballers.
While some individuals took to Twitter to express their anger at Terry using a racial slur against Ferdinand, there was no public coming together of Black players to speak out in solidarity; no march; no rally; and certainly no talk of boycotting matches in a bid to show that racism would not be tolerated in modern day football.
Rewind to 1968 and Black activism in the sporting arena was clear for the world to see when Smith and Carlos took their stand. And at that time, the repercussions of their actions were arguably far worse than any modern-day sportsman/woman could expect to receive if they chose to protest against racial injustice.
After making their salute, Smith and Carlos were both disqualified from the Olympics; they received death threats and fell on financial hard times upon their return to the States; and in 1977, Carlos’s then-wife committed suicide, reportedly because of the abuse and financial distress.
The pair received their recognition in later years when, in 2005, San Jose State University, where both Smith and Carlos were once students, honoured the former athletes with a statue of their protest, and presented them both with an honorary degree.
But back in 1968, Smith knew his actions wouldn’t earn him any glory at the time. Even so, he says he has no regrets.
“I felt it was something I had to do. People have asked me if I regret what I did. My answer has always been ‘no’. What I regret is that I had to do it. We’d had Black Americans who had died for the cause of everyone and we should have already had racial equality. We should have been there already, but we weren’t.
“I knew I wanted to do something and in the end, I made a silent gesture. And that gesture created a story that the whole world heard about.”
Before the 1968 Olympics, it had been a consideration of the Olympic Project for Human Rights organisation – a Black-led group that protested against racial segregation in the US – to call for Black American athletes to boycott the games in protest. Smith explains that after the organisation decided against the boycott, it was up to each Black athlete to choose whether or not they would make a stand.
“It was decided that it wouldn’t be right to expect Black athletes to all stand up for something they might regret because they might end up feeling it was too great a sacrifice. So we left it up to the individuals.”
Smith decided he would protest.
“I called my wife and said, ‘I need some gloves,’” he recalled. “She said, ‘Gloves? Ok.’ She knew something was up so she sent me my gloves. But even then, I didn’t know what I was gonna do with them.
“So I talked to John [Carlos] and I decided that I would hold up one hand [with a glove on it] and as soon as the national anthem began playing, I would bow my head in prayer.
“I told him he could have the other glove if he wanted it. So we talked about it and that’s what we decided. But when we were on the podium and we turned towards the stand, I couldn’t see John because he was behind me. So I didn’t know if he had done what we’d discussed! But he did. And what we did became so big.”
Looking back, 44 years on, was it worth it?
“Oh yes, it was worth it because I’m here talking to you about it now,” Smith said with a smile. “I’ve been able to talk to so many people about it and a lot of young people have been helped because of what we did.
“We go around giving talks and trying to help and inspire young people. So yes, it was worth it.”
Salute is in cinemas now and is released on DVD on July 30