Tommie Smith on 1968 Olympic protest with John Carlos, athlete activism - Sports Illustrated

How Tommie Smith’s ‘Cry For Freedom' Sparked a Legacy of Athlete Activism

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There wasn’t a specific plan in place on that day in Mexico City in October 1968, when 24-year-old Tommie Smith won the Olympic gold medal in the men’s 200 meters and approached the podium alongside third-place finisher and fellow American John Carlos. But both men knew they would protest against racial injustice in some form.

What they didn’t know is that their actions would spark a legacy of athlete activism.

“We were preparing to walk across the track and get on the victory stand and receive the award. John Carlos and I had talked and we knew we were going to do something,” says Smith, now 76. “But nobody knew exactly what Tommie Smith and John Carlos were going to do, including Tommie Smith and John Carlos.”

Smith and Carlos’ gesture on a warm October night has become immortalized in Olympic lore over the last five decades. Their fists in the air have come to symbolize strength in the face of injustice, solidarity against our society’s greatest ills. The raising of Smith’s fist was a truly spontaneous act. But the plan for a demonstration had been years in the making.

Smith, the son of a field worker and cowboy in north Texas, made his way to California in 1965 as he joined the San Jose State track team. And he quickly helped the program become a true powerhouse. Smith set a world-record in May 1966 as he ran the 200 meters straight in 19.5 seconds, and he won the NCAA men’s outdoor track and field Championship one month later. Yet Smith’s excellence didn’t lead to admiration throughout the community. Smith and his fellow athletes were treated as second-class citizens the second they left the track.

“San Jose State was the strongest track and field team in history. But nothing was really done about the negatives of being treated less than,” Smith says. “We would break a world record or run a good meet and we would still be relegated back to second-class status when we returned to campus or returned to our communities.”

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The athletes at San Jose State quickly became tired of the treatment they received outside of the track. And in October 1967, Smith and Co. chose to fight back. Smith and Carlos joined the the Olympic Project for Human Rights, a group founded by sociologist Harry Edwards in an attempt to protest against racial segregation in America and abroad. The group’s aims weren’t truly radical, especially by modern standards. But to Smith, they were necessary.

“This was the first time that a group of Black athletes stood against social negatives such as racism,” Smith says. “During that time, there was never much said about racism. ...People didn’t want to acknowledge the trials and tribulations of Black athletes.”

The Olympic Project for Human Rights considered a boycott of the 1968 Olympics as they protested American segregation, the war in southeast Asia and the stripping of Muhammed Ali’s heavyweight title. But ultimately, they opted to make their voices heard on the Olympic stage. That decision was met with considerable pushback. Former IOC president Avery Brundage insisted any athletes who demonstrated would be sent home and subsequently banned from Olympic competition. For 24-year-old Smith and 23-year-old Carlos, there was potential to compete in another Olympics after the fall of 1968. The protest in Mexico City cost them their careers in the heart of their respective primes.

Smith understood the consequences to his Olympic career before he took the stand in Mexico City. But the response across the United States came as a relative shock. Previous friends and acquaintances dissociated with the gold medalist. Carlos described having to explain negative headlines about himself when speaking with his father in the film The Stand: How One Gesture Shook the World and Smith noted a similar conversation with his dad.

“When I came back, my dad said, ‘There are a lot of people who say you did a bad thing,’ ” Smith recalls. “I said, Daddy, you’ve been working in the fields your whole life, picking cotton, being a cowboy, and you know there are some things that were done to you and you knew it wasn’t right. I put my hand up to say let’s work together and let’s fight racism. You are working for a man, but he needs to treat you like a man.”

“He looked at me and smiled and said, ‘Well you better keep talking.’ ”

Smith returned to athletics for a brief period after the end of his Olympic career, playing three seasons for the Bengals after being contacted by former Cincinnati assistant Bill Walsh. He wasn’t much of a receiver—opting to run past the ball on purpose during workouts to avoid dropping it—and he quickly transitioned to a career in education. Smith worked as an assistant athletic director, track coach and sociology professor at Oberlin College, and he then returned to California where he worked at Santa Monica College for 27 years. Smith's athletic career was cut short by a society all-too-willing to bolster injustice and racism. He’s proud of those who have carried the torch in recent years.

“Those athletes who stand up for the society of righteousness have my right hand, the hand that was in the air in 1968,” Smith says. “We were far ahead of our time trying to break the cycle of ignorance. And it did work to a point, and it’s being taken over now by young folks who are probably highlighted now more than Tommie Smith and John Carlos.”

The pair of Black fists raised in the Mexico City night have become an indelible Olympic image over the last half century. And the memory of Smith and Carlos’ act has drawn as much analysis as it has admiration. Some deem it an act of defiance. Others claim a call for revolution. Smith’s definition is broader, yet his message rings true as the fight against racism and injustice continues nearly 52 years later.

“You can call it a protest, a demonstration, a revolution,” he says. “For me, it was a cry for freedom.”