"Silent Gesture" Still Speaks Volumes

The 1960s defined an era of social and political change and turmoil in the United States, and it reached a boiling point in 1968.

In January, North Vietnamese troops invaded the U.S. embassy in Saigon, signaling a turning point in the war. Three months later, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot as he stood on the balcony of a Memphis hotel.

The civil rights leaders' death sparked riots across the country. That summer, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was gunned down in California while campaigning for president. Then, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley tried to quell riots during the Democratic National Convention in August.

Inspired by the civil rights movement, women's liberation groups held a bra burning rally in protest of the Miss America beauty contest. And Richard Nixon defeated Hubert Humphrey to become the nation's 37th president, succeeding Lyndon Johnson.

During that summer, another memorable moment at the Summer Olympics in Mexico City: Two U.S. medal-winning sprinters, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, shook up America with a silent protest, holding fists in the air while on the winners' stand as the "Star Spangled Banner" was being played on the stadium loudspeakers.

Smith writes about that night in his life story, "Silent Gesture: The Autobiography of Tommie Smith." He also addresses the tumultuous times the United States was going through, and his life before and since.

Smith explains why he thought it was important to bring the struggles of black Americans to the world stage, and tells of the impact his decision had — and continues to have — on him and his family.

He discussed it all on The Early Show Thursday, with co-anchor Hannah Storm.

"There's so many things that happened preceding that stand, different social inequalities, and I was asked by those who were responsible in many parts to act responsibly as a young black athlete," Smith told Storm.

The book attempts to clear up many misconceptions. Some thought Smith was part of the militant Black Panthers. But he was actually part a group called The Olympic Project for Human Rights, which had considered a boycott of the Olympics.

What was it he and Carlos were trying to accomplish?

"Getting rid of social inequality (and transforming it) to social equity," Smith responded. "It was not a big difference from what a lot of people were doing at that particular time, in different groups. I did not belong to the Black Panthers or any other group, except The Olympic Project for Human Rights, which started on the campus of San Jose State University," where he was a star athlete.

Smith said he was actually afraid he would be assassinated on the spot.

"Everywhere I went, it seemed that I would be harmed in some way, because of the magnitude of the stand and what we believed in, in terms of human rights."

The gesture was perceived by many at the time as disrespectful and unpatriotic.

Smith and Carlos wore black gloves, black scarves and black socks.

"These were symbols," Smith said. "And I think people remember symbols much more than anything else. We didn't have time to talk, because we were on the victory stand, but the hand (fist gesture) didn't represent so much black power as it did just power, social power, social equity. … And on the stand it was a prayer, a cry for freedom. It was very simple, but people made it so big because it was two black athletes on the victory stand and in an Olympic game, a sporting event. This was the big problem with America."

Smith added that he has "no regrets at all," even though he's remembered for the gesture, and not for his gold medal and being the only person ever to hold 11 track and field records at the same time.

"I am very happy and proud of the way I came through college," he said. "In fact, coming from childhood in the backwoods of Texas, with parents as sharecroppers, coming through that and participating, getting an education, and then looking back and helping in the thought process of those who didn't have the chance, I was very gracious to have sacrificed whatever it was, to make a claim that Tommie Smith is not the problem. It is the problem of those who have a choice and didn't make it politically."

His family sacrificed mightily after that day, going through some very tough times.

But when Smith talks to young people today, he urges them to stand up for what they believe in, to have "faith, faith in the substance of things hoped for, and the evidence of things not seen. You must have faith and hope. That hope comes from the neck up. I teach from the neck up, because it rules the neck down. I love doing that with young folks."

To read an excerpt of "Silent Gesture," click here.

For more on the book, click here.