We Interviewed Tommie Smith About the 1968 'Black Power' Salute

By Joshua Haddow

Last night (August 9) was the men's 200m final at the Olympic Stadium in Stratford, London. Surprising virtually no one, Usain Bolt, Yohan Blake, and Warren Weir cleared house, turning the podium yellow, green, and gold in Jamaican glory with gold, silver, and bronze respectively.

Forty-four years ago, the men's 200m winners podium was the stage for arguably one of the most iconic moments of the 20th century. As people railed against Apartheid in South Africa and racial segregation in the US, black American runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists to show solidarity with people fighting internationally for human rights.

During what is usually referred to as the Black Power salute of the 1968 Olympics, the two athletes were booed and forced out of the Games by the president of the International Olympic Committee at the time, Avery Brundage, who just so happened to be chums with Hitler back in the day. Carlos and Smith were hailed by most of the rest of the world as heroes. The third man on the podium, a white Australian named Peter Norman, was vilified by his home nation for wearing his Olympic Project for Human Rights badge in solidarity.

When Norman died in 2006, Smith and Carlos were pallbearers at his funeral. Salute, a film chronicling events around the gesture, made by Peter's nephew Matt, was recently released in the UK. Here is the trailer:

Ahead of the excitement of the final and in light of 44 years of history, I spoke to Tommie Smith (who, by the way, was also the first person to run 200m in under 20 seconds at the Olympics of 1968, winning gold in the process). Tommie had an interesting story to tell. He spoke a lot in the third person because he's a badass, and kinda handed my ass to me conversationally (by being a badass). We began with his life at San Jose State College where, as a young conservative, he was convinced to become more involved in the OPHR. Smith also met John Carlos (who won bronze and joined him on the podium in '68) in late '67 at the college. During this time, Smith was a member of the young military organization the Reserve Officer Training Corps, which is where we pick up the story.


Tommie Smith at the UK premiere of Salute in July.

Tommie Smith: Being a part of the Reserve Officer’s Training Corps, I knew that I was possibly delving into something that the American military didn’t agree with and certainly didn’t honor, which was the objection to how ethnic cultures were perceived in the United States. The United States military is very explicit in its beliefs: you are part of the country, you will deal with it, because of laws. If you don’t, you will be court-martialed, etc, etc.

So you were quite conservative, then?
Yes, I was very very conservative. I joined the ROTC, and I was a good cadet! I thought I was, anyway. There’s this film depicting me marching with an M14 rifle on the fields of San Jose State University, where we trained. I was very proud of being a military preponderate. That’s why I made my military moves on the victory stand. Turning to the right and turning to the left—these moves I learned in the military.

What was their reaction to your actions on the victory stand?
When I got back from Mexico City, I was no longer a part of ROTC. I believe I was terminated because of my belief in the fight for equality, the fight for freedom. I was perceived as, a militant in my own country. That’s something I’ve never said to anybody. 

Why do you think that was the case?
In the military you have rules and regulations. That is, you are governed by the rules of the US military and you go against nothing that might be contrary to what the military believes in, and what the United States believes, in regardless of who you are. But I knew without a doubt that because of the background of black people, that the military had a problem in understanding why we were fighting for freedom. You see, in the military, you fight for freedom from other countries. Not freedom within your country. So that’s where the civil liberties come in.

Which brings us to the Olympic Project for Human Rights and the proposed boycott.
Very true. The OPHR had more of a humanistic interest in the world, whether the person being mistreated was a person of color from the US or Africa or wherever.

What was the reaction to the proposal of the boycott?
There were athletes on the 4x100m relay team that were qualified officers in the American army.They honestly, really could not get involved in anything that would question American dignity when it came to equality. God knows what would have happened to them had they openly backed the Olympic Project for Human Rights in its most powerful stand for human liberty.

So in 1968 you have Avery Brundage, a known racist, as the president of the International Olympics Committee. He used the argument that the Olympics should be a non-political event. What did you think of Avery Brundage?
Tommie Smith doesn't look at a white man and says he’s wrong, I’d look at no person and think they’re wrong until they verbally abuse the idea of freedom. I do believe Avery Brundage certainly did that. Avery Brundage backed the 1936 fight against Jessie Owens because he was black. Avery Brundage was also very instrumental in the belief of apartheid. Now, what he did in 1968 was he put a barrier on the USOC [United States Olympic Committee] proclaiming that if any athlete came in front of the world [to salute] with Carlos and Smith, the entire American Olympic team would be disqualified. So they had to terminate the continual competition of Smith and Carlos. What else could the USOC do?

Not a lot, I suppose. Where do you see the civil rights movement now?
I think it’s grown more mentally than it has changed. Change is gonna continue to come, I suppose that is why I love the song by Sam Cooke "A Change Is Gonna Come." As long as there’s man, there’s gonna be a need for proactive work, proactive change. This is what makes man so interesting. This is the interest of the human race. God did not permit the human race to be boring. But he did suggest a belief that, if you believe, then you have to tell people why you believe in what you believe in, and continue to move from there. I know it’s vague, but what else can I do to preserve the integrity of the thought process when it comes to mankind?

It's a pretty cliche question, but then it was also probably one of the most iconic moments of the 20th century. What was going through your mind when you were on the podium and gave the salute? What were you feeling at the time?
A lot of happenings, Joshua. A lot came to mind on the victory stand, in nanoseconds. From the time I got involved until that particular raising of the fist in solidarity. From getting no jobs, my belief in humanity, both civil and human, and I had to say something because, you know, I believed. You can run, but you cannot hide, and this was all part of my belief then and is still now. I have a responsibility. I was on a mission. It was a Tommie Smith mission to bring forth the need for America to change. To change its policies, in terms of equality, to change its policies in terms of equal rights, and the right of all people in a country which the constitution has promised to protect. Very simple. Tommie Smith cannot see the big problem of change for the positive. It’s called politics. Some will, some won’t. We have a president now who I think is doing marvellous things, and still no matter what one does, people are gonna fight it, even if it takes the lives of those who don’t understand.

What was said between the three medalists—yourself, John Carlos and Peter Norman—before the podium?
Well our conversation was long and mighty. In terms of Peter Norman, he expressed verbally his idea of human rights. When he got on the victory stand he was wearing an Olympic Project for Human Rights button symbolizing his belief in human rights. Not symbolizing his belief in black rights in this country, but in human rights, which included the black rights. Tommie Smith and John Carlos had the same button on, therefore that tied him with the belief in human rights. Now, this man ran a great race. He ran a race of authority, especially the last six meters, to become a silver medalist. When he got back to his country, which also had problems with blackness, especially with the aborigine congregation, he was not received very well. I think he was vilified because he stood on the victory stand with a button on. There was nothing that he could do to make the country understand that he was not guilty.


Tommie winning the 200m gold in 1968.

But in the end he was vindicated, right?
I think so, Joshua, I think so. Because the man stands as the pride of freedom. Not to be vilified for standing with two black men who were having problems in their own country, dealing with freedom.

Whose were the gloves?
Those gloves belonged to Tommie Smith. I wore the right hand, and John Carlos wore the left hand. I gave John Carlos one because we had talked about something and it ended up as the victory stand with both hands raised in the air suggesting the same type of freedom. The cry for freedom, I call it. Not necessarily Black Power. It was black, young athletes raising this question and people call it Black Power because they suggest that we did the same thing as the Black Panthers did in the United States.

And that wasn’t the case?
No, it was not the case, no. The Panthers had their own right in doing what they did. They served the community, by any means necessary. By any means necessary they helped thousands of people. But the victory stand, and the gloves, were not part of the Black Panther movement.

The last question and then I’ll let you go. Literally the moment you raised your fist on the podium, were there any thoughts going through your mind? Were you thinking of other people, or your own family, or anything like that?
There was no time to think of negatives. I had thought of negatives long before then. The threats that Tommie Smith and John Carlos had received before then, was enough thought. And the thought that Tommie Smith had on the victory stand was prayer, which I did, while the national anthem was playing, with my head bowed, and my fist in the air. And the solidarity of the mixture of the congregation of different athletes at that Olympic Games. And because the national anthem was played, it represents the tie I had with a country that needed to understand that human rights is an issue. Civil rights were certainly the issue, because that’s where I was from, and I was proud to be from where I was from, but there was more work needed. That was it in a nutshell.

Could you describe the reaction?
First of all, it was very quiet because no one expected to see what had just happened. And then there were murmurs after they realized what was happening. Of course we received boos and cat calls, as we call them in the United States. Once we got off the podium and started to head back, that’s why you see my fist went up again as we crossed the track, in solidarity for the last time, whether they wanted to believe it or not. Tommie still had no negativity in his mind.


John Carlos (left) and Tommie saluting again on the track with Peter Norman between them as the three medalists left the podium.

Were you shocked in any way by the reaction?
No, I was not shocked. I was not shocked by any reaction, because I didn’t know what the reaction was gonna be. I knew what Tommie Smith was gonna do. As with the race—the first time it was run under 20 seconds. It’s the newness of life, and I’m still talking about it, because of that newness, of that freedom, of that positive action which I believe the victory stand took. But no malignancy, only love and what that love brought about. Because I am not a militant man.

Change will continue. This is why I’m talking to you, because of my belief in a continuum, and things will continue to change.

Thanks for talking, Tommie.

Follow Josh on Twitter: @joshuahaddow

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