SAN JOSE — Fifty years later, Tommie Smith found a penny in the dirt. He picked it up, rubbed it as clean as he could and looked for the coin’s age. He fixated on the date — 1939. It was a relic older than him, older than John Carlos, older than their protest and their suffering and their redemption.
He kept it with him all Tuesday afternoon, which marked a half-century since Smith and Carlos stood on the medal stand at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, heads bowed, wearing black socks with no shoes and raising black fists. They shocked the United States. They shocked the world. They were pariahs. Then, through the magic of time, they became icons. And somehow, on this day, they were supposed to make sense of a lifetime of courage, struggle and triumph because we have this thing about nice, round anniversaries. So Smith referenced the penny.
“It’s a special deal,” he said. “It just kind of struck me. The longevity. The survival.”
The simplicity, too. His life is complicated, heavy, and people cannot resist asking him to relive it. This penny is basic, light, and it cannot offer introspection. We know it came into circulation at the start of World War II, and we know that, for 79 years, it has been passed around, without ceremony or fuss, outlasting all of America’s beautiful and ugly moments. One overlooked cent. One precious cent.
During dinner Tuesday night, Smith and Carlos met several guests at their alma mater, San Jose State University, which had put together a summit of athlete activists, intellectuals and journalists. It was part of a three-day celebration that concluded with a Thursday night gala in which the two received the Tower Award, the school’s highest honor. Smith met Nate Boyer, a former Green Beret and football long snapper who had advised Colin Kaepernick to kneel rather than sit during the quarterback’s 2016 protest. They talked about the penny, of course.
“He thought that was the coolest thing ever,” Boyer said. “He was rationalizing the impact of time in this poetic and fascinating manner, and I’m not sure he even realized it. That’s awesome. I found a lot of meaning in it.”
The first days of the next 50 years began with penny poetry, turned into passionate discourse Wednesday and veered toward an emotional homecoming by week’s end. The anniversary — hosted on a progressive campus that Smith now considers “a mural of social change” — was everything it needed to be: difficult, raw, sobering, enthralling, inspiring. As the country vacillates clumsily between social progress and regress, Smith and Carlos don’t budge. They made their statement, lived with the consequences of their statement and transcended the pain.
“It has been a long time,” Smith said, “but we are not finished by any means.”
Fifty years later, they are still here, like the coin from 1939. They are living examples that athlete protesters, no matter how vilified in the moment, grow in reverence as they persist. It is the longest, hardest game in sports, but over time, context and perspective will win.
“Our impact, man, is like an ongoing beacon,” Carlos said. “It comes around, and you think you forgot it. And by the time you thought you forgot it again, here it is coming back. God set up this entity that took place 50 years ago. He set this up, man, as that beacon to enlighten society and keep society focused on the problems that we have. Let them know that, ‘Hey, man, you can no longer sit back and say you haven’t seen the blueprint of how to get out of the fire.’ You understand?”
Carlos leaned forward, pressed his left thumb and index finger together and made a jabbing movement as he spoke.
“All impact is eternal, and yet people couldn’t understand that back then,” he continued. “People want to know now because of all the recurring injustice and problems: ‘What do you think you accomplished?’ Obviously, I accomplished something because you’re in my face asking me about it.”
Smith is a quiet, understated, 74-year-old Olympic 200-meter champion who speaks in metaphors. Carlos is a brash, colorful, 73-year-old extrovert and 200-meter bronze medalist who can make hello sound more like an opinion than a greeting. They are eternally connected, but they are not close. They have both migrated to the Atlanta area and live about 20 minutes from each other, but there are no regular family Sunday dinners, no get-togethers for coffee or beer. They once shared a pair of gloves, and they continue to share a black-fisted burden. But they don’t share their innermost feelings with each other.
In a strange way, the tension makes their story more remarkable. They aren’t two buddies who thought defiance would be cool. They underscore a misunderstood aspect of peaceful demonstration: It is not rooted in an incessant desire to stand out for the thrill of it. It starts with compassion. It grows with helplessness because of how easily people ignore societal problems. Then comes the audacity to do something to get attention.
“I had a charge to keep,” Smith said. “I felt because of that platform I was responsible to do something for mankind.”
It was more than an oversimplified black power salute. That was the provocative label that others gave it, but Smith and Carlos had been inspired by the Olympic Project for Human Rights. Harry Edwards, the renowned sports sociologist and activist, had organized the movement as a 25-year-old college professor, and the OPHR had a broad agenda: to get Muhammad Ali, who had refused to serve in the Army, reinstated as the heavyweight boxing champion; to remove apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia from the Olympics; to force the ouster of International Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage because he supported the 1936 Berlin Games during the reign of Adolf Hitler; and to encourage better hiring practices for African American college coaches.
When Smith and Carlos finished first and third in the 200, they knew it was their time. Silver medalist Peter Norman of Australia joined them by wearing an OPHR button on the medal stand.
“I was thinking: ‘Now, let’s get busy. Let’s get down to what I came here for,’ ” Carlos said about the end of the race.
Purpose overwhelmed any apprehension. Carlos can joke now about telling Smith before the polarizing moment, “Remember, man, we are trained to listen for the gun.” The possibility of deadly consequences didn’t matter anymore. The protest was their destiny.
“It had gone beyond fear for me,” Smith said. “You had to do it. Your lives are dedicated to it.”
Over the past 50 years, they have advanced from feeling like outcasts even at San Jose State to having their statues erected on campus. They have survived dishonor and experienced presidential honor. But you must be careful not to whitewash their journey. There have been dark days for both men: poverty, broken marriages, depression, guilt. Carlos’s first wife, Kim, committed suicide in 1977. He considers it “the result of this whole issue.” He blames himself.
“I’m done talking about pain,” Carlos said with a soft voice but a forceful tone.
He’s not done talking about pain.
“Now listen, man,” Carlos said. “The essence of what we’re here for is greater than the pain. It’s greater than the suffering. You understand? I tell people, ‘Man, my wife could die for a thousand years, and I could die for a thousand years with her, but I would never change what my vision was in terms of the sacrifice I had to make.’
“Yeah, I could have went and kissed ass, cheesed, grinned. They said: ‘Play nice, and we can get you a job. You will make $100,000 a year.’ But am I giving up my soul for $100,000 a year? Am I forgetting about my kids? Am I forgetting about my grandkids by selling my soul for a job instead of taking a stand for human rights?”
As a 19-year-old, Spencer Haywood led the United States to a men’s basketball gold medal during the Mexico City Games. After the demonstration of Smith and Carlos, the young big man was forced to grow up and stop being naive about the world.
“I thought, in my narrow opinion, that they would never have to want for anything,” said Haywood, who participated in Wednesday’s “Words To Action” panel discussions organized by San Jose State’s Institute for the Study of Sport, Society and Social Change. “I thought that black people, or somebody, would all come together and lift them up. I’ve just been so disappointed that didn’t happen.”
Smith and Carlos didn’t have such an expectation. They don’t ask for praise now, either. When the crowd applauded some strong words from Carlos, he shot back: “Thank you. Please, no more of that.”
San Jose State President Mary Papazian called the week “one of the most anticipated events in our university’s history.” With Carlos, Smith and Edwards among the university’s alumni, San Jose State has become a haven for athlete activism. Over the years, as the school strengthened its embrace of them, Smith and Carlos at first questioned the motives. They have relented, however. One look at that magnificent, 23-foot-tall statue commemorating their protest, and you sense the school’s pride that two of their students were brave enough to create a watershed moment during the most chaotic year of the civil rights movement.
“That statue speaks down through the decades to interests and concerns of today,” Edwards said.
When they accepted the Tower Award on Thursday night, Carlos declared, “It’s an honor to come back home.” They lifted glass trophies into the air, in front of a projection screen that showed them raising black fists in 1968. The crowd stood and clapped. Some took pictures and video. Some wiped at the wet stuff trickling down their cheeks.
After 50 years, Smith and Carlos have been retrieved from the dirt, too.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.