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Olympic gold medalist Smith set to speak at CAAM event

Photo by Avan Clark

Photo by Avan Clark

ALBANY, Ga. -- Olympic gold medalist Tommie Smith will be the featured speaker at the third annual National MALES Conference Saturday hosted by Albany State University's Center for the African-American Male.

Smith won the 200-meter race in the 1968 Mexico City Summer Olympics. His time of 19.83 seconds set world and Olympic records. It was the first time the 20-second barrier had been broken.

While on the medal stand, the 23-year-old Smith and John Carlos, who won the bronze and was Smith's college teammate, both held their black-gloved fists in the air as a "historic stand for human rights, liberation and solidarity," according to Smith's Web site, www.tommiesmith.com. Silver medalist Peter Norman, a white Australian, showed his support for Smith and Carlos' actions by wearing an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge.

Most people saw Smith's and Carlos' gesture as a "black power" salute and were either outraged or filled with pride. The Associated Press photo of their raised fists became an iconic image and made them pivotal figures in the civil rights movement.

The '68 Summer Olympics in October occurred during a particularly tumultuous year. The Games were preceded by the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, the assassinations of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and presidential hopeful Robert F. Kennedy, the Soviet Union's invasion of Czechoslovakia and the riot-filled Chicago Democratic National Convention. On the verge of a Third World country hosting an Olympic Games for the first time, an estimated 300 student and civilian protesters were killed 10 days before the Games started in the Tlatelolco massacre in Mexico City.

"If I win, I am an American, not a black American," Smith said after the ceremony at a news conference, which was reprinted on the BBC's Web site. "But if I did something bad, then they would say 'a Negro.' We are black, and we are proud of being black. Black America will understand what we did tonight."

Smith told The Herald in a phone interview that he came up with the idea of making the political gesture and gave his left glove to Carlos. The two discussed the now iconic action, but Smith said it was up to each of them to actually go through with it. Smith didn't even know if Carlos was raising his fist at the time, since Smith lowered his head first and had his eyes closed as he prayed while "The Star-Spangled Banner" played.

"A lot of people see the closed fists and they see reckless defiance by a young black man fighting to maintain militancy," Smith told The Herald. "Militancy had no place on the victory stand. This was a cry for freedom, and the bowed head was in the physical action of prayer with the eyes closed.

"It wasn't to disrespect the flag; it was what the flag represented to me," he continued. "It was a country that needed prayer and a country that ran rampant on its racist policies. So prayer does do good things. And I've always believed in that higher being that you can say anything to without being bashed. I've never seen Jesus, but I believe."

Many fans at the '68 Olympics booed Smith and Carlos as they left the medal podium. International Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage said the political statement of Smith and Carlos didn't belong in the Olympics. Later that night, Brundage had Smith and Carlos suspended from the U.S. team. The pair were then expelled from the Olympic Village the next day and sent home as a result of their actions. However, they were not stripped of their medals as some media reports have stated over the years.

Smith pointed out that Brundage was the U.S. Olympic Committee president at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany. Brundage made no objections against Nazi salutes during those games.

"(Brundage) attempted to belittle our manhood, calling us boys all the time," Smith said. "He advocated the treatment of blacks in '36. The Jim Crow law that was abandoned years ago, he still believed in it. He would destroy anyone that believed in human rights. His idea was that America was great how it was."

As a result of their Olympic political display, the U.S. Olympic Committee banned Smith and Carlos from any further international competition, but Smith said he did later run in a few race appearances in the U.S. for club teams and individually. Smith played two years in the NFL for the Cincinnati Bengals as a wide receiver for legendary coach Paul Brown, but didn't get a lot of playing time.

In a recent speaking engagement, Smith told the audience that prior to making the controversial gesture, he was praying to God. Smith frequently quotes the King James Bible: "Silver and gold have I none, but such as I have give I thee" from Acts 3:6.

"I was praying underneath the bleachers; I was praying on the walk up to the victory stand and the entire time I was up there," he stated on his Web site.

"I've always prayed throughout my life; that's how all 12 sisters and brothers were raised," Smith said of the upbringing he and his siblings received from his late parents, Richard and Dora Smith. "I did more praying than running as a child. That's what we did."

HBO examined Smith's controversial Olympic act in its 1999 television documentary "Fists of Freedom." Last year, ESPN analyzed the event as well in its documentary "Return to Mexico City."

"We were not antichrists," Smith said in the HBO film. "We were just human beings who saw a need to bring attention to the inequality in our country. I don't like the idea of people looking at it as negative. There was nothing but a raised fist in the air and a bowed head, acknowledging the American flag -- not symbolizing a hatred for it."

After the '68 Olympics, Smith worked for 37 years as a coach, educator and activist. The Clarksville, Texas, native earned a bachelor's degree in social science with double minors in military science and physical education from San Jose State University. During college, he tied or broke 13 world track records. Smith later went on to earn a master's degree in sociology from Goddard College in Cambridge, Mass.

He was a faculty member at Santa Monica College in California for 27 years and taught six years at Oberlin College in Ohio. Smith said he was an athletic director at Santa Monica and Oberlin for a total of eight years.

In 2005, San Jose State presented Smith with an honorary doctorate degree of humane letters. His alma mater also honored him and Carlos that year with a statue of both on the Olympic medal stand, but the artwork was conspicuously missing silver medalist Norman, who attended the unveiling and endorsed the design by sculptor Rigo23. Illustrating the friendship and bond Smith and Carlos had formed with Norman, the pair flew to Australia to give eulogies and be pallbearers at Norman's funeral in 2006 after he died of a heart attack.

"There is often a misunderstanding of what the raised fists signified," Norman said at the statue unveiling ceremony in a speech reprinted on the Web site www.commondreams.org. "It was about the civil rights movement, equality for man. ... The issues are still there today."

Smith, 67, estimated he has given about 20-30 speeches a year since 1968. He penned his autobiography in 2007 with David Steele titled "Silent Gesture," which he will sign copies of at Saturday's ASU event. Smith is scheduled to speak during the luncheon, which will begin at 12:10 p.m. in the HPER Gymnasium.

Smith retired as a teacher and coach from Santa Monica College in June 2005.

In his retirement, Smith started Tommie Smith Youth Track Athletics. Using track and field as a way to connect, the initiative provides young athletes from underprivileged areas with health and wellness classes for six weeks before a track meet.

"I'm looking forward to (speaking Saturday) since it's the first time I've been to Albany State and Albany," said Smith, who grew up in Lemoore, Calif. "Education is a binding force of any strong society because there is a need to know, need to understand, need to disagree and need to agree.

"There's a need to disagree and find the reason to maintain proactivity because everyone agreeing on the same thing doesn't make a strong individual thought. Society grows stronger when the productivity of difference goes in the same direction. You can say, 'Hello' or 'Hi,' but you're still going forward."

W. Frank Wilson, director of Albany State's CAAM, stated in a news release that Smith "exemplifies the meaning of a well-rounded individual."

More than 200 people have attended ASU's Center for the African-American Male's MALES -- mentoring, advocating, listening, encouraging, supporting -- Conference in each of its first two years. Saturday's event starts at 8:30 a.m. with the opening session in the ACAD Auditorium on the ASU campus.

Other sessions will be conducted simultaneously in the ACAD building and will cover topics such as "Health & Wellness of the African-American Male," "Helping Our Dollars Make Sense," "Dress for Success/Interviewing for Employment," "There's More to Athletics Than Sports," and "Education: The Vehicle That Drives Progress."

Registration for the conference is $30 per person on site. To register, visit www.asurams.edu or call CAAM at (229) 430-1821.