Black Olympic sprinter and civil rights activist Tommie Smith remembers famous protest 50 years on.
American sprinter Smith has praised the ‘sacrifices’ of NFL star Colin Kaepernick.
AS Tommie Smith walked onto the stage at De Montfort University, the packed audience rose at once for a standing ovation. While the former American sprinter may have held 11 world records, the appreciation was greater for what Smith did off the track, for what he did 50 years ago today.
“People see it as a sacrifice, I view it as a responsibility,” the 74-year-old said, as part of a Black History Month talk at the Leicester university. “It was a sign of hope. I did it for humanity.”
On that day, October 17, 1968, in Mexico City, Smith set a new world record of 19.83 seconds in the 200 metres – but it was what he did afterwards that endured. Alongside bronze medallist John Carlos, Smith rose his hand to the sky and clenched his fist to highlight racial injustice in the United States.
The pair were suspended by the U.S. Olympic Committee and vilified at home. But what Smith did for civil rights that day usurped his impact on the track. “I wanted to leave in history my belief in my country, but also the belief that it needs improvement,” Smith explained. Those recollections from half a century ago could well be spoken today with the ‘Take a knee’ movement in the NFL, begun by Colin Kaepernick in August 2016.
Like Smith, Kaepernick’s act was against police brutality towards the black community. He, too, found himself vilified and without a team. “He had a position, one of the greatest positions in the world, being on of the best quarter-backs and being a young black athlete making this political stand,” Smith told the BBC. “I cried [when he saw the knee]. He’s young and he gave up hope of something that was very sacrificial to him because he loved football, still loves football, I think Colin will always love football.” Smith and Kaepernick have since met.
Their mutual friend, the Los Angeles based artist Glenn Kaino, said they were working on “connecting a gesture from 50 years ago to the crisis of our time”. Smith was inducted into the United States National Track and Field Hall of Fame 10 years after the act and, in 1999, was named Sportsman of the Millennium by California Black Sports Hall of Fame.
Reflecting on that day, Smith insists it wasn’t something he ever aimed for. “I didn’t want to do it,” he said. “I shouldn’t have to have done it because of the need to show the rest of the world that sacrificial entities are necessary for the continuation of a majority.” Quotes such as these are published on Smith’s official website. But perhaps the most pertinent to Smith was not spoken by him but appreciated. “Silver and gold have I none, but such as I have, give I thee,” Peter says in a passage Smith picks out in the Bible. It is a line that is applied to Smith today, and a path that many are now following.