Fifty years after their protest in Mexico City, John Carlos and Tommie Smith have endured as symbols of dissent, even as their paths diverged
By Tim Layden | Sports Illustrated | October 3, 2018
Start with the image, a still life of protest. It captures a vital moment in history, yet its meaning evolves, as time measures what has—and has not—been learned.
It tells the story of a battle fought, in a war neither won nor lost, but ongoing. Of a place and a time, not so different from here and now. Of sports and division, it was fifty years ago this month. “Fifty years! Can you believe that?” says Tommie Smith, a man of 24 in the image, a much older man of 74 today. Fifty years.
In the scene, Smith stands on the top of the Olympic podium, the number 1 painted beneath his feet, which are purposefully sheathed only in black socks, with a single black Puma sneaker also perched on the platform. He is a black man wearing a black scarf beneath his red, white and blue USA sweats, and a black glove on his right hand, which is thrust skyward, his arm so straight, it looks as if he is trying to reach into the grey overcast and bring rain. This was on the evening of Oct. 16, 1968, in Mexico City. A Wednesday.
Many Americans saw this scene on square black-and-white televisions while eating dinner. Smith had won the gold medal in the 200 meters. It hangs from his neck as “The Star-Spangled Banner” plays. His head is bowed, his face intense. Behind him, facing the medalists’ flags, is bronze medalist John Carlos of the U.S., then 23. The two men were training partners of a kind in California, but not close friends. Carlos is also shoeless in black socks, a sneaker on the platform. Beads hang from his neck, behind his medal. He has a black glove on his left hand, which is raised. His arm is slightly bent, his pose more casual than Smith’s, but no less forceful and eloquent.
There is a third man in the image, silver medalist Peter Norman, a 26-year-old Australian. He is wearing the green uniform of his country and, like Smith and Carlos, a white button pinned to his chest. Norman is looking up at the flags, smiling. Fifty years.
That is the singular moment, one of the most iconic—and important and controversial—in sports history. This is a story about that moment, but just as much about the moments that followed, laid end-to-end, repeated, until they span months and years and decades, and encompass lives and legacies. Smith and Carlos were young black men protesting racial inequality, using the platform of the ceremonial playing of their national anthem at a sports event. Where they raised their fists, a half century later Colin Kaepernick would take a knee. “We’re trying to recapture terrain that we thought was once conquered,” says Harry Edwards, the septuagenarian sports sociologist who as a 25-year-old instructor in 1968 organized the movement that led to Smith’s and Carlos’s protest.
The moment defines Smith and Carlos, as Kaepernick’s defines him, and always will. It extracted a cost—opportunity lost, money never earned, families tested and broken. They were heroes to some, pariahs to others, lauded and threatened and belittled. Smith, as sweet a mover as ever set foot on a track (Lord, to have seen him race Usain Bolt), ran a few races after the Olympic final. Carlos ran until 1970, ranking first in the world in both the 100 and 200 meters.
Both men only found footing in society many years after Mexico City and, ever so gradually, gained acceptance as leaders. In 2005, a 22-foot statue depicting the scene on the medal stand was dedicated at San Jose State, where both had been students and competed. Three years later ESPN awarded Smith and Carlos the Arthur Ashe Courage Award, and in September 2016 they were recognized at the White House by President Obama with members of the ’16 U.S. Olympic team. Yet now they grapple with the state of race relations in their country, which some days makes them wonder what they accomplished 50 years ago. “Many struggles are not final victories,” Edwards says.
And each wonders alone. Both men have family and friends and the hard-earned respect of millions, but they do not have each other. Smith is a sharecropper’s son, raised picking cotton in California’s San Joaquin Valley, serious and dutiful. Carlos was born and raised in Harlem, with the soul of a hustler. They have never been close. “Oil and water,” says Smith’s wife, Delois. The protest and all that followed did not bring them closer.
Smith and Carlos see each other on occasion—at various reunions of the 1968 Olympic team, or for paid speaking gigs. They are a set of two, keen to experiences that no other human—except perhaps Kaepernick, who has met with both men—can understand. Yet they are not a pair. They are one, and one.
It is no simple matter to gain access to Smith or Carlos to talk to them about their story. They know how its meaning has evolved, and how it is acutely relevant. But their reticence is understandable. Both are weary. Carlos is as game as ever to take on the system (you’ll see); Smith, as ever, is more cautious (you’ll see).
I started asking in late February, with emails and calls that went unanswered. I asked mutual friends to help. Nothing. Smith and Carlos speak in public regularly and sometimes together, but rarely these days sit for media interviews.
In late May, I received a reply from Delois, who handles most of Tommie’s affairs. (She is his third wife; they have been together for 21 years.) The email: “Call me tomorrow,” and a phone number. When I called, Delois talked about the many times her husband had signed the cover of the May 22, 1967, issue of Sports Illustrated, which featured the 22-year-old Smith uncoiling from starting blocks in gold sweats, next to the headline: blazing quarter-miler. (He did not enter the 400 in Mexico City.) She also asked, “Is this a paid interview?” I told her that it was not. “I am going to grant you this interview with Dr. Smith,” Delois then said, cheerfully.
Tommie Smith has lived in a modest, two-story brick house in Stone Mountain, Ga., since 2005, when he retired after 27 years as a teacher and coach at Santa Monica (Calif.) College. We talked in his basement, which is a staggering monument to not just the evening of Oct. 16, 1968, but also to his remarkable (and remarkably short) track career, to his life, to a vital era in track and field, to the Olympics and to activism. The room is alive with memories. An Olympic flag, swiped by Smith from the Mexico City Olympic Stadium before the protest, decorated with the signatures of U.S. teammates Jim Hines, Al Oerter, Jim Ryun and others. A framed Newsweek cover from ’68 with the headline, the angry black athlete. A picture of his childhood home in rural Lemoore, Calif. Another of his junior high basketball team, with Smith towering over his teammates as a 6’ 2″ eighth-grader. Dozens of black-and-white action photos of Smith setting some of his 11 world records between ’66 and ’68. And several shots of the medal stand protest, some signed by Carlos and Norman.
Smith settles into a lounge chair and leans forward, engaged. “I don’t talk to everybody,” he says, “because I don’t want to fight what’s going on now in the country. I only want to talk about my belief in what I was doing.” When, in the course of a two-hour interview, the subject turns to today’s racial climate, Smith speaks slowly and carefully. He knows who he is and understands the power of his name. “I have to make all my words count,” he says. “Have things changed in fifty years? Not as much as I hoped they would. At times it’s as bad or worse than it was in the ’60s because there are more things to become agitated about. And the people to fight those negatives are fewer because black folks don’t have that leadership, black or white, like Dr. King or the Kennedys.”
Minutes later he resets, seeking an uplifting turn: “It’s moving in a positive direction.”
When I ask him if he approves of President Trump (and his policies), Smith says, “His tenacity, but not where it’s going. Nobody thought he would be here, so you have to admire. . . .” Smith stops and points his finger at me. “Now don’t you say Tommie Smith likes Trump. Any leader needs to be strong, but not to the point where he becomes a tyrant. Like Putin. Putin is a tyrant.”
Carlos lives 20 minutes south of Smith. Fifty years after sharing the podium, they could shop at the same Kroger and both fly out of Hartsfield. That has not brought them closer. “People said we would be joined at the hip,” says Smith. “That has not been the case. We’re totally different people. I’m quiet and reclusive; he says what’s on his mind. I’m an introvert; he’s an extrovert. I count to 10 before I throw a rock and then maybe I throw a Wiffle ball instead. He throws the rock.”
Between February and late June, I