Have you ever met a rock star? Or a famous scientist? Or, why not – the President of the United States?

I have to say no to all three – but I can now say that I have met the man whose protest against injustice to Blacks shook the world.

That man is Tommie Smith, the 6’ 5” Black athlete who won the sprint finals at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico, breaking the 20 second record by finishing in 19.83 seconds. He was 24.

Now 80 years old, Smith, who is in Paris for the Olympic Games, met the press at the Musée National de l’Immigration shortly after his arrival. By the time he got to our group, the Anglo-American Press Association in Paris, it was late in the day and his French organizers  were frantically trying to protect him from over-fatigue. 

Our time with him dwindled from 45 minutes to 30 and even at the 20-minute point we were told it was time to wrap it up.  Smith, however, seemed happy to be with people speaking his own language and when we were gently shoved out the door some 30-35 minutes later, he was in no hurry to go.

There is always a tendency, whether the event is the man on the moon or 9/11, to do the “where was I when that happened?” thing.   I was working on my masters in journalism at Northwestern University and remember watching the shoeless black-clad athlete on the podium bowing his head and silently raising his black-gloved fist in a Black Power salute while the national anthem played.

A startling scene. Some approved.  Most, starting with the International Olympic Committee that banned Smith and fellow protester bronze-medal victor Juan Carlos from the Games, did not. 

As for me, at the time I was confused, didn’t know what to think. Now, of course, I realize what a brilliant, courageous and powerful move it was.   

The fallout was fierce. Smith says his father, who could not read, never even knew about it.  “My mother did though,” he reminisced as he fondly recalled their close relationship.   “She knew my mind”.  And, unfortunately, “she was the one who went to the mailbox and saw the feces and dirty notes deposited in it.”  His brothers and sisters, he says, were taught about what I did and “didn’t participate in athletics” because of his act. The townspeople shunned him “because they were afraid”.

“I could have been hateful. But I know you don’t hate because of others’ stupidity.” Smith, who went on to a career as a track coach and college sociology professor, thinks that people did not understand.  His gesture, he says, was not “against” any country but “for” the rights of man and all humanity.   

Would he do it again?

“I’d do it every day.”

-Harriet Welty