The return of the Black Power icon and Olympic protester Tommie Smith

“I called my wife and said, ‘Get me some black gloves.’”

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“Man, I love this weather,” says Tommie Smith, gazing over a chilly, damp Manchester Ship Canal. “I just got in from Atlanta where it’s a hundred and ten. So this is fine by me.” Tommie is 74 and moves a little slower now than he did in 1968. But he’s still athletic and imposing and looks like he could cover the hundred or so yards to the water faster than anyone else in this room. Fifty years ago, he could cover it faster than anyone on earth.

Purely as a sporting event, the men’s 200-metre final on 16 October at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City was thrilling. Smith, for the US, pulled away in the last few seconds from fellow American John Carlos and Australia’s Peter Norman who ran neck-and-neck to the tape. Smith took gold in a time of 19.83 seconds – a new world record. But only Smith and sports statisticians recall that today. It’s what happened next that the world remembers.

These days everything from ice cream flavours to minor pop singles are “iconic”. Meaning has drained from the word. But the image of Smith and Carlos on the podium –  medals around their neck but heads bowed, eyes down, clenched black gloved fists thrust into the hot, dark Mexican night – deserves the word. The whole world was watching and knew what this meant. It was the salute of the Black Panthers, the revolutionary vanguard of the Black Power movement.

I met Smith at the BBC in Salford during a UK tour to mark the 50th anniversary of his epochal protest and Black History Month. Raised in east Texas, as one of 12 children, Smith picked cotton as a boy “so running was easy”. Carlos was from New York and smart, savvy and politically aware. Both studied at San Jose State University, a hotbed of black radicalism and were prime movers in the new Olympic Project for Human Rights, an alliance of athletes committed to social justice and change. The black members of the 1968 team had been considering a total boycott as a protest against racial discrimination, apartheid and police brutality, and an expression of solidarity with the civil rights/Black Power movement that was sweeping America in various forms from the non-violence of Martin Luther King, to the “by any means necessary” credo of Malcolm X, to the armed resistance of the Panthers.

“I was never a Black Panther,” said Smith. “I wasn’t strong enough. But I wanted to add my voice to what was happening. We stopped off at Denver en route to Mexico City to be fitted for our team suits and even then we had not decided whether to take part or not. In Denver, finally, we voted to compete. And we went there as the strongest track team athletically, the strongest team academically and the most committed group of people you can imagine.”

A boycott was averted. But as Smith recalls, “everyone knew something was going to happen. I knew I had to do something. It was the first Olympics in a third-world country and it would be the first one shown live all around the world.” Some form of protest had long been rumoured. But Smith only decided on the actual gesture on the eve of the race. “I called my wife and said, ‘Get me some black gloves.’ She said, ‘Why do you want gloves in Mexico?’ I said, ‘Never mind, just get ‘em.’” There was only one pair available; the prosaic reason why Tommie holds his right hand aloft and John Carlos his left.

“It felt like I was up there for an eternity with a capital ‘E’. All through “The Star-Spangled Banner”, you can see me muttering ‘get me off this stand’.”  To stand before the world in this pose – in the same year that Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were shot – was an act of courage and defiance that variously stunned, thrilled and angered. “Yes, I had death threats, plenty of them, but then I’d been getting death threats for a year and a half for being a political black athlete,” Smith remarked. When he pulled a muscle crossing the line in the semi-final, he initially thought he’d been shot. As it was, after the podium gesture, he and Carlos were sent home in disgrace, where they faced anger and more death threats.

In many ways, Smith was and is an unlikely revolutionary. Softly spoken and diplomatic, he is cautious when asked about contemporary protests such as American footballer Colin Kaepernick “taking a knee” during the national anthem on behalf of Black Lives Matter. “People must do things in their own way like I did. I can only speak for me. For me it was never just a Black Power protest. It was a human rights protest.” Of Trump, he initially demurs: “What can I say? He is the elected president of the United States.” But he does bridle at a recent celebrity encounter with the president. “Kanye West went to his office and tweeted ‘there was such energy in that room’. Yes. But it’s energy that stinks.”

Perhaps Smith is mindful of the treatment he received after Mexico, when he met hostility and struggled to find work. At one point, he coached in the Yorkshire industrial town of Wakefield. Now he is back in the north as a hero and, yes, an icon.

Stuart Maconie is a BBC Radio 6 Music presenter

Stuart Maconie is a radio DJ, television presenter, writer and critic working in the field of pop music and culture. His best-selling books include Cider with Roadies and Adventures on the High Teas; he currently hosts the afternoon show on BBC 6Music with Mark Radcliffe.

This article appears in the 19 October 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Europe’s civil war