Forty-eight years after their black-fist protest led to their shunning, Tommie Smith and John Carlos are White House heroes and Olympic ambassadors.
Smith and Carlos, who held their gloved fists high on the medal stand in the 1968 Olympics, met with President Barack Obama on Thursday and had dinner with the U.S. Olympic team earlier in the week.
They were sent home from Mexico City in 1968 after their protest at the Olympics.
“Oh, the fallout,” Smith said Thursday in a phone interview. “I could not find a job when I got back. All the promises and all the endorsements disappeared. The phone never rang. Never rang.”
Two history professors in Nebraska say the Smith-Carlos protest belongs to an American civil-disobedience tradition going back to the Boston Tea Party in 1773. Such demonstrations are designed to bring attention to social injustice.
Now three Husker football players have joined black athletes across the nation in kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality, police shootings and racial inequality. They have won praise and received scorn for their act.
Smith applauded the young men, saying their gesture was appropriate, nonviolent and thoughtful.
“You also can pray while kneeling,” Smith said.
He said he believed kneeling could trigger discussions about the work that remains to be done and how the nation can move forward.
Kent Blansett, an assistant professor of history and Native American studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said protests have triggered conversations and change in the United States for many decades.
“Taking a knee, I think, is interesting,” Blansett said, adding that football players tend to kneel when another player is seriously injured. “You do it out of respect. You’re pausing. You’re showing that this is a moment that requires immediate attention.”
Gov. Pete Ricketts said this week that the three Husker players — Michael Rose-Ivey, DaiShon Neal and Mohamed Barry — had committed an act that was “disgraceful and disrespectful” to service members who have died in combat. Ricketts said they could have found a better way to protest, such as raising their fists so they could remain standing during the anthem and not send a message of disrespect for the country and flag.
The governor has engaged in protests, such as the annual Nebraska Walk for Life, an anti-abortion demonstration.
Ricketts, who has said he would never try to take the right of protest away from the players, reiterated Thursday that they should “look for a different context that still honors and respects the men and women who have given their lives for our country.” Ricketts noted that Obama has said the athletes who kneel need to appreciate the pain that this could cause a person who has lost a spouse or child in combat.
Patrick Jones, an associate professor of history and ethnic studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said Smith’s and Carlos’ raised fists were much more militant symbols than kneeling. Raising a fist conforms to stereotypes of black men as angry and combative, Jones said, while kneeling is thoughtful, prayerful and defies those stereotypes.
The oft-heard criticism that the national anthem at a football game is a bad venue for such a protest ignores the point, he said. People who have a platform, as these players do, understand that “it is about compelling an argument, compelling a discussion, a public discourse” about societal problems, Jones said.
“The point is to use that platform,” he said. “And that’s part of the strategic choice of a nonviolent protest like this.”
Smith won the 200-meter race at the 1968 Games. Carlos finished third. On the medal stand, wearing black gloves, Smith raised his right fist and Carlos his left.
Smith said Thursday that their gesture was viewed as far from palatable in 1968. The fist-raising protest emerged from a movement called the Olympic Project for Human Rights. The concept, headed by black intellectual Harry Edwards and others, advocated an Olympic boycott or other protests against racism and injustice in South Africa, Rhodesia, the United States and elsewhere.
Smith, a graduate of San Jose State University, said blacks endured racism and inequality in housing and employment. He felt that his nation hadn’t represented him well.
“A conversation needed to start happening,” he said. “John and I had talked about it quite a few times.”
They had a nonviolent plan, Smith recalled Thursday. “It was a strong platform, and we were there to be responsible and to make a change.”
They jointly arrived at the decision to raise their fists if they ended up on the victory stand, and they did.
They expected to sacrifice for their act, he said, but not to the degree they did.
“We didn’t think it was going to be that great,” he said.
They were shunned, he said, even by some of their friends. “Everything disappeared,” including opportunities to capitalize on their Olympic success.
Jones said black athletes who protest tend to shake up and disturb white America. Ultimately, though, competitors such as Muhammad Ali, Smith and Carlos are “refound and reclaimed and embraced and held up” as courageous, Jones said.
Blansett said the nation’s “very founding rests on powerful symbols of civil disobedience.” Rather than scorning protesters, he said, the nation should ponder ongoing inequalities. Democracy is a work in progress, he said, and a democratic nation learns by hearing those with grievances.
“The best thing to do is to really try to listen,” he said. “That’s what makes this a great nation.”
Over time, Smith’s and Carlos’ act was accepted and today even revered by many.
And now, Smith noted, they are U.S. Olympic ambassadors.
A huge statue rises high at San Jose State — Smith and Carlos standing above the campus in their classic pose, fists raised.
“Every time I look at it,” said Smith, 72, “I get teared up.”
World-Herald staff writer Emily Nohr contributed to this report.