Tommie Smith reflects on iconic Olympic moment 51 years later

Tommie Smith reflects on iconic Olympic moment
Tommie Smith reflects on iconic Olympic momen... 02:18

Atlanta — American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos will be inducted into the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Hall of Fame Friday, 51 years after they raised their fists in protest at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.

That moment, with Smith at the center, became one of the most iconic images in sports history. Smith had just won the 200 meter gold medal. Next to him was bronze medalist and teammate John Carlos.

"People could not understand. It was not about the flag. It was a chance to heighten the idea that we must eradicate stupidity called racism," Smith said.

It was a statement through symbolism and the gloved fists represented power.

"The head bowed represented prayer, or faith. The feet with the pants rolled represented poverty. One of the most important things was making a statement without saying a word," Smith said.

U.S. athletes Tommie Smith, center, and John Carlos stare downward during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner at the Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City on Oct. 16, 1968. AP Photo

The reaction was swift. Smith and Carlos were suspended from the national team and immediately sent home. They were vilified and at one point, homeless and unemployed.

"Although I had 11 world records, I was washing cars just to feed my son. I couldn't find a job because they viewed me as a radical person who was dangerous," Smith said.

Smith and Carlos eventually recovered and both coached and taught in college and high school. Today at 75, Smith said his induction into the Olympic Hall of Fame is bittersweet.

"Is this in some way an admission on the organization's part, 'We were on the wrong side of history,'" Brown asked.

"I think they begin to see that now, yes. It was the right thing to do," Smith said.

He shared a letter with CBS News that he plans to read at Friday's ceremony. It says in part, "My crime? Taking advantage of a moment and a platform to call attention to injustice."