In 1968, Tommie Smith won an Olympic gold medal in the 200-meter dash in Mexico City. Standing on the platform, wearing his new medal, he and fellow American athlete John Carlos raised their fists in the Black Power salute.
It became an icon symbolizing the connection of sports and civil rights. Smith told University of North Georgia students Monday, Feb. 18, that fighting ignorance is not a lost cause, and there is still work to be done.
“Working together toward unity must continue indefinitely,” Smith said during his lecture at UNG’s Gainesville campus. “So, let no woman, man or child indicate to anybody that overcoming is a dead issue. … Overcoming is a daily occurrence.”
Smith is originally from California and now lives in Stone Mountain.
Smith’s visit was part of UNG’s Black History Month celebrations. Events scheduled later this week include the “Unsung Black Heroes” exhibit on Feb. 20 and a lecture from Ohio State University associate professor Hasan Kwame Jeffries on Feb. 21. Both will be held at the Gainesville campus located at 3820 Mundy Mill Road in Oakwood.
UNG Black History Month events
“Unsung Black Heroes” exhibit
When: Noon to 1 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 20
Where: Cleveland Ballroom, Nesbitt Building, University of North Georgia’s Gainesville campus
Hasan Kwame Jeffries guest lecture
When: Noon to 1 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 21
Where: Robinson Ballroom, Student Center, UNG Gainesville
Smith, who is a retired Santa Monica College professor, emphasized the importance of education.
“Going to school is not a waste of time. What is a waste of time is going to school and not thinking that it might help you,” he said.
Smith also addressed protests by modern athletes, including football player Colin Kaepernick, who famously kneeled during the national anthem to protest racial inequality and police brutality.
“I feel gratified in young people taking a stand, but he took a knee. I took a stand. Together, we move forward in sameness,” Smith said. “He did not do what he did to degrade the flag, nor did I. … I love that country, and the flag represents that country.”
Smith also encouraged students to take a stand for what is right and work with people who may have different views or experiences.
“Don’t sit in the back row of society and wish you could have heard what went on,” he said. “…Contribute with suggestions so your understanding of the subject matter will be free of confusion and ambiguity.”
Robert Robinson, UNG director of multicultural student affairs, has a photo of Smith’s Olympic podium moment on his office wall. He also researched sports and social justice for his dissertation, and meeting Smith and coordinating his visit was a chance to see that research come alive.
Sports and social justice are intertwined through concepts like fairness, Robinson said.
“It’s like a common language that all of us know, and when you add the concepts of fairness and rules and guidelines, social justice kind of follows those lines,” he said. “…When you see an athlete being discriminated against, when you see the call, you can see the unfairness unfold right in front of you. … (Activists) want America to see social justice right in front of them.”
Robinson said he also hopes his students learn from Smith’s story that anyone can impact change — Smith was only 24 when he won the gold medal and made a statement.
“Anyone can take a stand. There are things in America that need to be changed,” Robinson said. “It comes from young people having the courage to make a stand.”