BOSTON – When he stood on the victory stand in Mexico City, his head bowed and his fist raised, Tommie Smith didn’t allow himself to think about racial progress in the United States, when a black man would be elected president or when Smith himself, once reviled, would be honored on a holiday for Martin Luther King Jr.
“I didn’t think about what was possible, or what wasn’t,” Smith said Monday night, more than 40 years after he was exiled from the Olympics for raising a Black Power salute on the medal stand. “I didn’t think getting off the podium was possible for me at the time, with all the death threats I had received.”
Smith won the 200 meters in world-record time at the 1968 games, then was expelled from the games along with bronze medalist John Carlos when they bowed their heads during “The Star-Spangled Banner” and raised their gloved fists in protest. They returned home to threats and found themselves ostracized.
Four decades later, Smith was in Boston to be honored during the Celtics’ game against the Phoenix Suns and to be inducted into the “True Heroes of Sport” Hall of Fame at the Northeastern Center for Sport and Society along with Carlos. On the eve of Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration, Smith saw his protest as part of a movement that isn’t quite finished.
“It means somebody heard my steps – besides people in the races I ran against,” Smith said. “It’s a great stride forward, just because we have a person with hue, and with an African-American background. That doesn’t mean our job is over; it means it’s just begun. I don’t mean people of color, I mean everybody in the nation.”
Smith met with the team captains before the game, then raised his eyes to look at the U.S. flag on the video screen during the national anthem. Carlos could not make the game because of a speaking engagement, but his wife, Charlene, was recognized in his absence.
“I’m not a big believer that just because you play good golf or good basketball doesn’t mean you have to be the spokesman for the race,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “(But) I like people like that, who have given something else to the sport. They were blackballed from life. … That was as big a sacrifice as you could make.”