Few in the world understand the noise generated from a silent gesture better than Tommie Smith.
Nearly 50 years before the NFL’s Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem to bring attention to police violence and social injustice, Smith and fellow American sprinter John Carlos took off their shoes, bowed their heads and raised gloved fists during the anthem on the medal podium after they won the gold and bronze medals in the 200-meter dash at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.
Their silent gesture – immortalized in one of the most iconic sports photos in history – was in support of the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) and meant to bring attention to inequality during the height of the civil rights movement in America and apartheid in South Africa and Rhodesia.
Much like the ongoing protests during the anthem in the NFL today, the raised fists of Smith and Carlos drew a backlash and sent them home as outcasts rather than heroes. The third medalist on the podium, Australian Peter Norman, was shunned in his homeland for standing with them and wearing the same OPHR badge.
“The conversation has changed but about the same issues,” Smith said. “Different time, same issues.”
Smith, 73, will have plenty to talk about Wednesday at the Augusta Marriott and Convention Center when he’s the keynote speaker at the Augusta City Classic Hall of Fame banquet honoring 2017 inductees Dr. Mac A. Bowman and coach Robert Grant.
“I think I have a little something to say about a couple of things,” Smith said in a phone interview from his home in Stone Mountain, Ga.
In Smith’s autobiography Silent Gesture, he wrote about the experience and the change in his life that began on that medal podium. He hoped the world would understand his message, but he was fearful that someone would literally shoot the messenger.
“I prayed – prayed that the next sound I would hear, in the middle of the Star-Spangled Banner, would not be a gunshot, and prayed that the next thing I felt would not be the darkness of sudden death,” he wrote in his book.
Despite the hardships and death threats that hindered his ability to make a living and cost him his first marriage, he never regretted the human rights statement he and Carlos made. Smith bristles at the notion that still persists that athletes should “stick to sports,” believing that anyone who has the platform should “proactively move in a direction to make our world stronger.”
“I never said a word as the national anthem was playing,” he wrote in his autobiography. “My silent gesture was designed to speak volumes. As hard as I had worked to climb the victory stand, I had worked just as hard to earn the platform that the stand provided.”
One of Smith’s most enduring quotes can serve as a lesson for what Kaepernick is experiencing in exile from the league where in which he quarterbacked San Francisco to the Super Bowl in 2013. Kaepernick has filed a lawsuit against NFL team owners accusing them of collusion in keeping him unemployed.
“I once knew a pair of starting blocks that turned into a stepping stone,” Smith said. “I did not realize that I would be the steps to be walked on.”
Smith applauds the determination of Kaepernick and the other players, cheerleaders, coaches and some owners who have kneeled, locked arms or raised fists to express their First Amendment rights and concerns about injustice even in the face of criticism from the president and others who say those protests are unpatriotic and an affront to veterans.
“There’s a lot of great athletes, but the limelight is not on those who have more to say but on those who are speaking out,” Smith said.
Smith certainly never intended to be the one to speak out. His moment on Oct. 16, 1968, “propelled my life in a different direction,” he said. It prompted him to continue his education, earn his doctorate and become a teacher. He’s spent the last 20 years traveling to as many as 15 countries a year to speak about his experiences and encourage those who fight for human rights.
“I was a very quiet kid and a very quiet athlete,” he said of the young man who ended up breaking the world record in winning that Olympic 200-meter gold medal in 19.83 seconds and set seven individual world records and several relay records. “I wanted to go to college, get an education, get a job, have kids, go to my church and die.
“As long I was breaking world records and as long as I was being a good kid and following the practices of the Constitution, they were fine. Once I found out the needed responses to a very indignant society, then that’s when I began to speak out in Mexico City. And Mexico City was a speech, but it was a speech without words. People made their own decisions of what Tommie Smith was trying to say on the victory stand. Some got it right and some didn’t get it so right. That’s why conversation is important. Because what they thought is not what I meant.”
Smith said the gloved fists he and Carlos raised were not a “Black Power” salute as it is commonly referred to but a “human rights” salute. Today, Smith sees the same pattern happening with people misinterpreting Kaepernick’s message to suit their own agendas .
Only the scope has changed. In 1968, it was the president of the International Olympic Committee, Avery Brundage, who immediately suspended Smith and Carlos from the U.S. Olympic team and expelled them from the Olympic Village.
“We were told more than once that you could run and win for the United States but keep your mouths shut,” Smith said.
In September, President Trump profanely encouraged NFL owners to fire any players who don’t stand for the anthem.
“Our elected officials are beginning to show the true issues of their beliefs,” Smith said. “I think more are representative of the almighty dollar and not of the person that’s in need to be served as an equal. … Our forward momentum right now is stopped. We’ve got to learn how to use our hands and brains all over again.”
In a political climate where white supremacy groups seem emboldened and anti-immigrant sentiment is growing, Smith doesn’t object to the biblical term “blacksliding” to describe the direction the country is heading in terms of social justice.
Smith believes the only resolution for turning it around rests in education and open dialogue – and that nonviolent, peaceful protests like Kaepernick’s are essential to triggering necessary conversations.
“It’s going to continue and going to rise to the pinnacle of understanding that the right of Amendment I is a necessity,” Smith said. “I’m going to look to the grammar schools, middle schools, high schools, junior colleges and colleges and also in the pulpits around the country. There must be communication. This is one way that communication is going to spread. Some might call it upheaval. Some might call it verbal riots. Some might call it ignorance.
“But all that is a necessity in a rising melting pot moving forward. If it’s not moving, than you die. Movement, no matter what type of movement it is as long as it’s under the law of a nation, is going to be okay. I didn’t say right, I said okay. The constitutionality of Amendment I is very tolerant when it is safe in the streets and not carrying a baseball bat around with you or a gun which is saying if you don’t believe like I believe, you shouldn’t live. That’s going to kill us.”
Smith will continue to speak out as an educator for as long as he is able. After everything he went through for his silent gesture, he’s not worried about consequences.
“I was put on this earth that as long as I believe in something and do it right without a profane attitude, I think I’ll be okay,” he said.