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And now Smith, Carlos and their country have arrived at a stage that seems to allow the good done by their gesture to be weighed against their sacrifice.
They, and the civil rights activists of their generation, made the American public understand that the thousand ways—in Jaw and custom and language and stereotype—by which whites pressed blacks into subservience were unconscionable in a society of equals. They changed the terms of the debate.
But they cannot say that they won it. The plight of young black men today is in many ways worse than it was in 1968. A black man in the U.S. stands a one-in-21 chance of being murdered. Black manhood is affirmed less in sports and ever more in joining gangs, in pushing crack, and in children fathering children. In Chicago, 29% of black men between the ages of 20 and 29 spent time in the Cook County jail last year.
Smith sometimes wants to cry out to his own. "Black parents have not honored my times," he says. "Judging by the kids I see, parents have been too busy making it in corporate America to teach social issues. Kids come into my office spouting the rhetoric of ignorant fools, calling women bitches and all that, and they look at the pictures on my wall and they say, 'Who's that guy? Sure is skinny.'
"And I say that was me, at a proud time. And they see the portrait a friend of mine did, with the gesture superimposed on the head of Liberty, and they say, 'I think my father did say something about that....'
"They won't believe I met Martin Luther King," says Smith. "So what do I teach? I coach women's cross-country and track, which is 95 percent white. Those women love me. They sit and look me in the eye and we talk."
Smith tells them how Ronald Reagan, eternally cast opposite Tommie Smith, never told the American people any bad news. So now, after a decade of neglect that is hard to term benign, we need huge fixes in the environment, in our financial institutions, in our schools, in the budget and in the cities.
Smith does not believe his gesture has proved to be, as long-jump record holder Beamon puts it, "suicide, political suicide. Only it takes the rest of your life to die." When his students ask whether Smith would raise his fist again, he says, "Under the same circumstances, I could do no differently. It had to be done. I thank God I had the background to act. But I can't do it again. So I'll have to do something else. I'll have to teach you people one by one."
Smith has thought of how his life would have been different had he not acted. He sees it in the same shape. "I'd have come home to San Jose State with my medal, I'd have served in the Army, and I'd still have been a teacher. There were no instant millionaires from the 1968 Olympics."
Warding off regret, says Smith, is easy when you know you did the best you could. "I like what I did," he says. "It made me feel I did something for the cause, and it won't turn bitter if I don't let it turn bitter. It's not going to keep me from going home and hugging my wife. Look at this gift, these sweet kids and a wife who understands. And you know what? All but one of my 11 brothers and sisters are still living. This is not a sad story."