It remains one of the most iconic images from the intersection of sports and civil rights in the 20th century: Olympic Gold Medalist Tommie Smith standing atop the podium at the 1968 Games in Mexico City with his gloved fist raised in the air, in what many eventually dubbed a “black power salute.” His U.S. teammate John Carlos, who finished with a bronze medal in the same race, also made the gesture.
But Dr. Tommie Smith’s involvement in civil and human rights didn’t end after 1968 in Mexico City, and this Sunday at Goddard College in Plainfield, he will receive a Presidential Award for Activism as part of Goddard’s undergraduate commencement ceremonies.
1968 was, of course, a volatile time in United States History. Smith said the move was about international human rights. He was very involved in the Olympic Project on Human Rights.
“The media has to sell that, the words “black power,” of course brought in a lot of fear. There was a lot of things happening that impacted the black athletes directly in this country. So it was positive, but a lot of people viewed it negatively because it was done by black young athletes. In the eyes of the world, those people viewed it as an insult,” Smith said.
Smith says the Australian on the podium, Peter Norman, was also wearing the Olympic Project for Human Rights badge. And he was ostracized in Australia and his career was over after the photo was taken.
The gesture has in many ways overtaken Smith’s other athletic accomplishments.
“I held 11 more records, more than any other man in track and field history at that particular time. It was the first time the 200 meters went under the 20 second barrier. And the first time that the Olympic games were held live on color television. A lot of firsts. But the one thing that people remember is those 90 seconds on the victory stand,” Smith said.
Smith said he’s always been fighting for education and human rights and became part of the masters program at Goddard because he could use his teaching and writing experience towards his degree.
“They acknowledge more than my running fast,” Smith said.