At the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, gold medal sprinter Dr. Tommie Smith and bronze medalist Dr. John Carlos made a “Silent Gesture” on the podium. As the National Anthem played, the tall athletes bowed their heads, raised their leather clad black fists and stood barefoot wearing only black socks.
After running 200 meters, the bold athletes’ victorious stand quietly conveyed their views on inequality, poverty and racial pride. Smith, a record-breaking Hall of Famer sprinting close to 30 miles-per-hour, and Carlos experienced a backlash in the wake of their symbolic advocacy. They were booed by spectators. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) suspended the competitors and revoked their accolades. Back in the States, they received countless death threats. Their body language was compared to a Nazi soldier’s salute.
Smith, talking with his thumb, index and middle finger clenched together, doesn’t regret that moment on the podium. Instead, when he coaches younger athletes, he often encourages them to carry a mirror. The method, Smith says, is empowering. “Carry yourself in your pocket. You see what God has given you to believe in. You have to trust yourself. If you don’t love what you see, how can you expect anyone else to love what they see?” says an encouraging Smith.
Smith, Carlos and Australian silver medalist Peter Norman wore Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) badges on their warm-up jackets. It was in that moment Smith became more self-aware of his own consciousness. These days, he prefers to let people draw their own assessment of his actions. “That was a gift to me. Simple things make the important things important. That’s why silence is golden. I know what I did it for. The saving grace was that not a word was used. I’m using your sensibilities of how you feel about that within you,” says Smith.
Smith’s and Carlos’s heroic posture earned them status as both revolutionaries and pop culture icons. The “Silent Gesture” image, captured by Life Magazine photographer John Dominis, is immortalized in countless history books, documentaries, posters, music videos, cover art and clothing.
“We still have youth out there that need to hear the word. The silence of a person can generate the power of the heart. By you believing in yourself, you’re gonna help someone else. You look at that [silent gesture], and you get your strength. Even though it’s not saying anything, you tell yourself what you want from that,” says Smith.
Smith, who remembers pulling a muscle during the race, fluidly uses metaphors and allegories to illustrate how non-verbal protest is another chapter in both the civil and human rights movement. “Do what you do. Whatever you do, do it well. There’s good air, bad air and no air. Try not to breathe, and you’ll find out how blessed you are to do something with bad and good air. There’s good people and bad people out there. Just draw the goodness out of both,” says an easy going Smith.
Dressed in an impeccable three-piece navy blue pinstripe suit with the Olympic logo pinned on his lapel, Smith rests comfortably in the Atlanta Marriott Marquis lobby with his hand on his knees. He and Carlos were both recently inducted into the Trumpet Awards’ International Civil Rights Walk of Fame at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church. It’s one of the many high honors he and Carlos have received alongside gym dedications and a 23-foot statue on San Jose State University’s campus.
Smith is a retired pro athlete for the Cincinnati Bengals, retired college educator and in-demand public intellectual. Forty-six years after his monumental win, he is proud whenever he is honored. He references Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s quotes, who was assassinated the same year as Smith’s Olympic victory.
“I always knew it was something bigger than me. I just couldn’t see it. You must feel the spirit and believe in it. Without work, you can have all of the faith in the world, but it won’t come into fruition unless you work for it,” says Smith.
This post was written by Christopher A. Daniel, pop cultural critic and music editor for The Burton Wire. He is also a contributing writer for Urban Lux Magazine and Blues & Soul Magazine. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.