Tommie Smith has finally come full circle.
The Lemoore High School graduate and Olympic gold medalist was one of 13 names announced on Monday to be selected for induction into the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee Hall of Fame. Smith and the rest of the inductees will be formally recognized at a ceremony in Colorado Springs on Nov. 1.
“It’s been 50-plus years, so it takes a while for it to soak in not that it’s so important that I can’t think of anything else, but it’s been so long,” Smith said on Tuesday via phone call. “Time takes its toll, but it’s a thing of pride, thing of reckoning even more so knowing that it took so long for that committee to come to reality with things moving forward.”
The USOPC is the same committee that expelled Smith from the 1968 Summer Olympics, then known as the U.S. Olympic Committee, after his and teammate John Carlos’ now-memorable demonstration.
With his black, glove-covered fist raised high above his bowing head, Smith stood on the Olympic podium after winning gold in the 200-meter race in a world record-setting 19.83 seconds. Next to him was Carlos in identical form with bronze around his neck. Neither was wearing shoes and both were protesting racial injustices against African Americans.
“You know it’s come full circle, but the circle is very dim because there would not had to have been a circle at all had they reckoned the reality of a need back then,” Smith, who made it clear he was not throwing the USOPC under the bus, said. “Sometimes it takes a while for things to change, but it’s better to happen later than to not happen at all.”
The duo simultaneously produced one of the most memorable moments in Olympics history and recognizable images of the 20th century. The immediate effects included being expelled from the Olympics and death threats because of their protest, but it was the lasting effect that even Smith couldn’t believe.
“If I had, I would’ve saved my gloves, I would’ve saved my shoes, I would’ve saved my T-shirt, everything and put them on eBay today,” Smith jokingly said.
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Smith was only 24 years old at the time of the Olympics and said it was done because his heart said, ‘He picked you to make this happen,’ referencing God. Smith added that he knew something was going to happen in his life, but he just didn’t know what.
When remembering the moment nearly 51 years ago, Smith said it was needed.
“It was needed to bring things to a reckoning or bring things to an understanding that we can’t live status quo,” Smith said. “We can’t live like people before us lived who can live in the same system, but the system changes and there has to be someone who is going to stand up for that change.”
Now 75, Smith credited his upbringing in Lemoore as a big reason as to why he stood up for his beliefs all those years ago.
“I hope the people down in Lemoore and Hanford and Tulare and Corcoran, even up in Fresno, Kingsburg all those places reckon that the little guy, the cotton picker Tommie Smith from back then is the same guy who is 75 years old now,” he said. “Proud of the town he came from, proud of the cotton fields and grape fields he worked in. That’s what made me, me now is the hard work and the understanding that if you’re going to stand for something you better stand up or you just might fall for anything. I’m proud of that background, hardworking background.”
In the years after the protest, as more have come to recognize its significance, Smith has been given a multitude of honors. Smith and Carlos had a statue built at San Jose State, Smith’s alma mater, and were also awarded the 2008 Arthur Ashe Courage Award, but he said this one is, “All above them because this one happened before all the others happened and I’m very thankful and proud that there was a start.”
Smith referenced one of his favorite songs, “A Change Is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke, when discussing his own change and the change in the committee to understand the meaning of his protest.
“I’m very proud of the Olympic committee for standing up now,” Smith said. “They stood up now like I stood up then.”