By Dennis J. Freeman
CARSON — Tommie Smith raced to the victory stand some 50 years ago after winning the men’s 200 meters at the 1968 Olympics. Smith and American teammate John Carlos are more known today for what they did on the medal podium than their first- and third-place finishes at the Mexico City Olympics on Oct. 16 of that year.
Smith and Carlos’ human rights salute with their raised black fists, drew the rebuke and scorn of the International Olympic Committee and journalists around the world. The duo was sent home and would not be welcomed back with warmth once they reached American soil. The two men would become sports pariahs, hated by many in the country they represented.
Extended unemployment treks, constant harassment and death threats made their personal lives a place of regrettable discomfort to the point that Smith’s first marriage wound up in divorce and Carlos’ first wife would take her life as an indirect result of the famed Olympic protest.
Fast forward 50 years later and Smith and Carlos are out on the public speaking circuit, sharing their story of what went down that day they stood up for humanity. Both Smith and Carlos have painfully rebuilt their lives. Both have earned doctorate degrees. Both are revered figures in the civil rights movements.
The San Jose State teammates also are still involved in education. As such, Smith participated in Cal State Dominguez Hills first Distinguished Presidential Lecture Series Nov. 7, talking to students about his plight at the Summer Games in 1968.
“I’ve been asked many times, ‘What was the benefit standing on that victory stand in 1968 with your dominating gesture that caused you pain and effort?’” Smith said. “I believed in 1968, and I still do, that standing on that platform for social justice anytime is redemptive. The pain of sacrifice en route is no greater than the pain of those that perished on the historical path of hope fighting for justice and securing that seat of progress which we sit in today.”
Smith was joined at the conversation event by former USC star Reggie Bush, Cal State Dominguez Hills women’s volleyball middle blocker Ester Dutu, UC Riverside Athletics Director Tamica Smith Jones, and NFL Network reporter Steve Wyche, who moderated a panel discussion during the “Silent Gesture: Athletic and Courageous Conscience” program.
With the current backdrop of Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players using their platform to protest racial inequality and the lack of racial justice during the playing of the national anthem, the theme of the night fittingly centered around sports and activism. Kaepernick is not in the NFL largely because of his stance on these issues. Smith Jones, Bush, Dutu and Wyche all hammered the topic with enthusiasm and a small bit of trepidation.
“I think for NFL players … when the Kaepernick thing happened, when he took a knee, a lot of guys were frustrated because the narrative was changed,” Bush said. “It was a narrative that [said] that we don’t appreciate our military or somehow we’re being disrespectful towards the military, and how that narrative became a part of what Kaepernick was doing, frustrated some people in the NFL.”
However, before Wyche would lead his panel into their wheelhouse, Smith opened the event with philosophical musings about his demonstration on the Olympic medal stand.
“The infamous ‘Silent Gesture’ on that Olympic medal podium was catupulted by silence heard around the world,” Smith said. “It was my cry, Tommie Smith’s cry for freedom, highlighted by truce on why it had to be done.”