Gold medalist Tommie Smith stood on the dais at the 19th Olympiad in Mexico City, with black glove raised into a fist, his head lowered as the Star-Spangled Banner played. It remains one of the most iconic moments in sports history and the American Civil Rights Movement.
In 1968 (as today), statements of political nature were considered by the media, its shareholders, and white institutions to be antithetical to the spirit of athletics.
Smith and fellow medalist John Carlos were removed from the Olympic village by the Olympic committee and were sent home to the US to face public criticism and negative press in the mainstream media. Olympics were to be apolitical, and not a platform to speak truth to power, so said the Olympic committee at the time.
Now, the committee is making its form of apology.
Smith and Carlos have recently been inducted into the Olympic Hall of Fame. The announcement appeared in the Washington Post on September 26th. In the article, the International Olympic Committee attempts to acknowledge the racism of its past leadership.
Goddard College, in recognition of the work of Tommie Smith, presented the 1968 gold medalist with the 2013 Presidential Award for Activism at a commencement ceremony in Plainfield on October 6th 2013. Smith received his Masters Degree in Sociology in 1974 from Goddard and has since enjoyed a distinguished career as a coach, educator and activist.
“My time at Goddard College was an unforgettable educational odyssey, and it is an honor to return to receive this award. At Goddard I was able to bring all of my previous academic and life experience together, express myself freely, and develop my understanding of the impact of racism on all aspects of the human experience, particularly in the field of sports.“-Tommie Smith, upon receiving the Presidential Award for Activism in 2013, Goddard College
At the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, Smith broke the world and Olympic record with a time of 19.83 seconds and became the 200-meter Olympic champion. As the Star Spangled Banner played and Smith and teammate John Carlos stood on the victory podium, draped with their Olympic medals, each raised a clenched fist covered in a black leather glove in a historic statement for racial justice. They removed their shoes to represent the systemic economic repression of Black communities who are burdened with state-sanctioned poverty.
Smith’s “Silent Gesture” propelled him into the spotlight as a human rights spokesman, activist, and symbol of African-American pride at home and abroad. “I was cheered by some, jeered by others, and ignored by many more,” said Smith, “but I made a commitment to dedicate my life, even at great personal risk, to champion the cause of oppressed people.”
Following the games of the 19th Olympiad, Smith played professional football with the Cincinnati Bengals, and went on to become an Assistant Professor of Physical Education at Oberlin College, where he also coached track and field, football and basketball, and served as Athletic Director. He became a member of the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1978 and served on the coaching staff of the 1995 World Indoor Championship team in Barcelona, Spain. He retired in 2005 from Santa Monica College where he was a faculty member and coach for 27 years.
He continues to work with youth in retirement through his foundation, the Tommie Smith Youth Initiative, which includes training clinics, track meets, and educational programs to promote heath, wellness and fight childhood obesity.
The Goddard College Presidential Award for Activism recognizes alumni who have made significant contributions in the field of social justice and who embody the mission and values of Goddard College.
To learn more about Tommie Smith, and his continuing fight for justice, go to tommiesmith.com
Engage your passion for justice by designing your own curriculum at Goddard College. Whatever your background or experience, you can build your BA, MA, or MFA degree to challenge yourself to be a force for change while addressing concerns facing your community as you study. Bring your whole self. Find out more about our unique offerings at goddard.edu.
Editors Note: This article has been revised from a blog post from 2013. https://www.goddard.edu/?s=tommie+smith