FRESNO, California (KGPE) – The victory stand at the Olympics is one of the biggest platforms in the world. In 1968, Olympic sprinter Tommie Smith saw it as the perfect moment for him and fellow sprinter John Carlos to take a stand on the issue of race in America.
“It was flaring, very flaring in the 60s. The King administration, the Kennedy administration Malcolm X, and others that made Tommy think do better than what he did yesterday,” Tommie Smith recalled during a recent talk from his home in Georgia.
At the time Smith, who was part of the ROTC, was on scholarship at San Jose State. Raised in Lemoore as one of eleven children, Smith says he was taught to work hard and stay quiet.
“I came from the cotton fields of the Central Valley, didn’t hear much news from the time. I was growing up in the valley and at Lemoore high school.” Smith recalled
His record-breaking speed on the track became his calling card.
The poor treatment of African Americans was something even smith could not outrun – so during the 1968 Olympic games in Mexico City, he joined the fight for racial equality.
After winning the gold medal, with Carlos at his side, Smith took off his shoes and raised his fist on the victory stand.
“Many people view Anthony, Tommie Smith and the victory stand as a militant act. It was not a militant act. It was the only way I could show my allegiance to a country that represented freedom, democracy, and culture.” Smith explained
The gesture touched off a firestorm. The pair was proud of their silent protest but the Olympic committee was not. After being sent home immediately, Smith recalls the toxic environment touched every aspect of his life.
“I went to school at night because I was afraid to go in the day because I received death threats,” Smith said
As with many athletic protests, Smith recalls being unjustly vilified and misunderstood.
“It was the platform, not the flag. We were not there to fight the flag, only the negativity of how we were treated.” Smith passionately stated
Four decades later, San Jose state would unveil this statue of the pair.
It would be over a decade for the United States Olympic Committee to see the error of their ways, finally inducting Smith and Carlos into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame. Smith, who has set more world records than any man or woman at the time, felt it was an honor he earned.