There are events that shape our lives. Some events are personal, others are shared with friends. Few are shared with the world.
Lemoore native Tommie Smith’s moment, caught in the iconic image of him on the podium after winning the 200 meter event at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, made international headlines.
His black glove-covered fist raised in the air, his bowed head with the gold medal around his neck, the photo of Smith created a furor around the world. Many called it a black power salute, a statement of dissent and an insult to the United States.
The Civil Rights Act had just been signed. Martin Luther King had just been assassinated. Students were marching and protesting. A tent city of protesters in Washington, D.C., was erected. Riots and demonstrations raged across the country.
“Just about everybody was looking at [the 1968 Olympic games] and this was his moment,” said Dr. Ernie Smith, Lemoore resident and Tommie’s brother. “It was a moment of conscious thought and it was a moment of spontaneity that he did what he did... There was never any disrespect to the country intended.”
Here’s what Tommie thought about it being called a black power salute:
“Well, that black power salute, I don’t call it that I call it a victory stand salute. It wasn’t meant to be a big dissent act, only the thought of. ‘listen to me here is something I need to say, but I can’t say anything.’ You can interpret it the way you want to interpret it. But it is for the cause of human rights... I can’t talk radical stupid, but I did have something to say for the cause of human rights issues.”
The Sentinel talked with Tommie Smith, by phone, and Dr. Ernie Smith, in Lemoore, about the 1968 Olympics and the effect it’s had on the nation and their family.
Question: How difficult was it on you and your family after the 1968 games?
Tommie Smith: I don’t think the family knew what was going on and they received a lot of the hardships, and I feel sorry for that. But it did make a change... It was very difficult. I think it was as difficult for them as it was for me because I did it and they reaped the negative benefits of what I did... I cried a lot about that but what could I do? Sometimes you have to sacrifice. I’m not sure many people understood what I did was because of the need to make human equality viable.
Dr. Ernie Smith: We were able to deal with it through prayer. We’re a very religious family. Our parents didn’t believe in revenge. A package that was sent to our mom, we eventually found out who did it. Because he came and admitted it to my dad and wanted to clear his conscious. It was kind of like “before I die I need to get this off my chest” kind of thing. But my mom and dad never took any revenge. My parents taught us to do exactly what it says in the Bible: you pray for your enemy; you love your enemy. But that’s hard to do. But I think that the type of spiritual life that my parents led really is the biggest thing that helped them to deal with it.
By that time in 1968, I was at Oregon State on a track and football scholarship. So I wasn’t here and I didn’t feel some of the death threats that were here... But I was treated different up there as a result.
Q: Why do you think that people wrong interpreted the message as being a black power salute?
Tommie Smith: Well, that black power salute, I don’t call it that I call it a victory stand salute.
Dr. Ernie Smith: It was totally misinterpreted. I grew up with Tommie Smith. I grew up with the kid, the boy, the man. And that was never a part of it. The Black Panther party was a totally different thing than where Tommie was. This was just a rude awakening to America for the common people — just everyday people who deserved the right to enjoy human rights. That’s what it was all about... If you look at every sporting event today, the first thing they do is [raising their fist] which is indicative of the fact that they won. Had not Tommie done that, you couldn’t have a person crossing the finish line or scoring a touchdown [pumping their fist]. Someone had to go first and pave the way that said this ok to do now. So it was a gross misinterpretation of what I consider the most powerful and most honorable acts that I’ve ever seen.
Q: What are your thoughts about the image of the raised fist being back in the news with Beyoncé’s Super Bowl half time performance?
Tommie Smith: You know Beyoncé is a challenging person with the beauty content to go along with the lyrics in her songs. But then all of a sudden there’s the fist. The fist represents power. It represents Tommie Smith on the victory stand. What she represents is not what I do. I don’t sing. But what she has that I don’t have is the notoriety of beauty. But I’d like people to know that the fist represents power and not for me black power. The power to change the negativity in our country and improve the idea of equality, love. The negativity of how hate will destroy anything that it touches. So I understand what she did and it was beautiful to watch her. But what I hope that she had in mind is what Tommie Smith had in mind because she used the fist. But the fist could represent the Lakers, the Clippers. Or the Hanford Bullpups, you know?
Q: Do you think people have changed their views about Tommie and see him more as an inspiration now?
Dr. Ernie Smith: Yeah, I do see that. He has the Tommie Smith Youth Foundation, it’s a very viable and active organization. He gets requests for speaking appearances. There are still pockets of where the people who can remember, still have ill feelings about it. The bad thing about that is a person who has kids sees some inspiration in what Tommie has done and you introduce that to your kids, they may not have this negative, bad thing about it. But people who are Tommie and my age, a person who may remember it, and don’t want nothing to do with him. Rather than them shutting up and letting their kids decide, and letting them see in the history books that this wasn’t a thing that was trying to be degrading to America. Eventually that will work out of the system... It’s unfortunate that many schools and kids don’t know about the great Tommie Smith.