Smith and sport laid the groundwork for Obama’s rise
Tommie Smith in retirement is relaxed and friendly. He speaks without rancour of the harsh years after he outraged white America by raising a black-gloved fist and bowing his head on the victory podium at the 1968 Olympics in protest at his country’s treatment of its blacks.
Yet at the age of 64, the ex-athlete still finds it hard to believe he emerged alive from the Mexico City Games.
On the eve of Barack Obama’s inauguration, Smith received a special award during an NBA game between the Boston Celtics and Phoenix Suns. He was asked if at any point during his silent
gesture he could have visualised the possibility of a black man as president.
“I didn’t think about what was possible or what wasn’t,” Smith replied. “I didn’t think getting off the podium was possible for me with all the death threats I had received.”
Smith’s paranoia was justified. In 1968 Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were shot dead. American cities burned as the black ghettos revolted and students rioted on the streets throughout the western world. It was also the year Lyndon Johnson decided not to run for a second term as president because of mounting opposition to the Vietnam war.
Smith has written in chilling detail of the long moments he stood on the podium praying he would not be shot after winning the 200 metres final in world record time.
Third-placed team mate John Carlos mirrored his protest by raising his left fist to produce one of the iconic images of the 1960s. Carlos was also convinced he would be shot.
“I was a long time on the podium,” Smith recalled in a recent telephone interview. “Martin Luther King was only on a balcony briefly.”
Smith even feared for a horrible few seconds that he had been shot during the semi-finals.
“I strained the adductor muscle,” he said. “It was a very sharp pain that some folks have described as like being shot. I looked down at my leg and it was just a pulled muscle. Better not being able to run than to be shot.”
Smith and Carlos were hustled home from Mexico City as the International Olympic Committee took swift revenge for their perceived heresy. In the ensuing years Carlos’s wife committed suicide, Smith’s marriage broke up and, despite their college educations, the pair struggled to obtain even menial work.
Smith says a black man had no chance of being elected president in 1968.
“In 1968 there were too many racist ideologies,” he said. “We had riots on campuses, we had riots in every major city in the U.S. And campuses in those cities were in turmoil. Why were they in turmoil? They were in turmoil because of the civil injustice, civil rights. There were things that needed doing that the government wasn’t doing. There was a civil war.”
In the closing years of the turbulent 1960s, the world’s best-known athlete was not allowed to practise his “savage craft” after refusing induction into the U.S. army. Instead world heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali used much of his unsought sabbatical to argue the anti-war cause on U.S. campuses.
Ali has now been virtually silenced by Parkinson’s disease after taking too many blows to the head. On the eve of the presidential inauguration, Ali’s wife Lonnie spoke on his behalf at Kentucky’s Bluegrass Inaugural Ball in Washington.
“For Muhammad, it’s probably something he thought he’d never see in his lifetime,” she said. “For Barack Obama to be sworn in as president, it’s almost a dream, a fulfillment of Muhammad’s legacy, everything he believed, everything he worked for.
“It’s going to be a legacy fulfilled not only for Muhammad but for so many Americans, and for so many people who have since departed this world such as Martin Luther King, who we should
honour as well.”
The 1960s, the decade in which Johnson pushed through legislation banning racial segregation, was the first time Smith and Ali could have made such dramatic protests and generated
such a global impact.
Jack Johnson, as flamboyant a character as Ali and on the evidence of old film possibly as gifted a fighter, was the first black world heavyweight champion. He flaunted his success and his fondness for the company of white women too blatantly for an openly racist society and in 1920 was jailed for “transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes”.
Thirty years later, Jackie Robinson’s success in major league baseball, the mainstream American sport, proved intolerable for the bigots who thought blacks should stick to foot races and prize fighting.
Robinson, the first black player in the major leagues, endured unimaginable abuse from opponents and spectators when he travelled south with the Brooklyn Dodgers in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
“He had intimidating skills and he burned with a dark fire,” wrote the distinguished sportswriter Roger Khan, who reported on the Dodgers as a young man. “He bore the burden of a pioneer, and the weight made him more strong.”
But Kahn also pointed out that Robinson was in no sense a rebel.
“I loved Jackie Robinson well enough not to have to deify him,” Kahn said. “Politically he was an infant.”
The subsequent emancipation of black athletes has paralleled the social and political progress which has made it possible for the son of a Kenyan man and an American woman to become the
leader of the world’s most powerful nation.
Ali and Lonnie attended the inauguration. Smith and Carlos, accompanied by their wives, watched television coverage from their hotel rooms in Boston. Both men wept.
As the Confederate flags fluttering from motor homes parked in the infield at NASCAR races demonstrate, there are still battles to fight.
“It is changing for the better,” Smith concluded. “Things are better because people had to fight to make them better.
“I just kept on going and it was my time to do something. I have a non-secular background and I believe if you work hard enough and you listen to your fate you go back for more. You
don’t just give up and I just didn’t give up because I had a belief that a lot of people don’t have.”