SECOND OF A TWO-PART SERIES
"It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them."
As Tommie Smith stood on the victory stand after winning the Olympic 200-meter dash in Mexico City on Oct. 16, 1968, it struck him that he had enclosed his life in his black-gloved fist and lifted it up to become a symbol. The more powerfully he succeeded, the less that life would be his own.
He drove the fist as high as he could. Smith's arms span seven feet. He had drawn his uniform's sleeves above his elbows. To observers nearest the track, his bare right forearm seemed to tower to the height of the Olympic torch.
Behind and below Smith, his left fist gloved and raised, stood bronze medalist John Carlos. Smith's eyes were cast down. Carlos's roved the stadium. Smith's arm was ramrod straight. Carlos could have been hanging on to a subway strap.
"My arm was cocked because I wanted to be able to protect myself," says Carlos. "We didn't know what would happen."
Their gesture embodied black unity in the face of continuing black poverty and discrimination. To force his nation to see that its egalitarian promise had not been fulfilled, Smith made himself a beacon. He held up the unpleasant truth in a place where only he could stand, and from which no one could look away.
And then he wished it could all be over. Smith cared intensely about his cause, but he was not of a crusading temperament. He was attracted to a great gesture because it offered him a chance to do his part for social justice in one brave stroke rather than through years of speaking or organizing.
He knew he was plunging his gloved fist into a society that was already bleeding. The central conflict of the United States—the struggle over what it means to be American—had erupted on more fronts in 1968 than in any year since the Civil War.
In January, the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, which showed that massive U.S. troop infusions had not broken Vietcong and North Vietnamese strength or will, made Americans examine the character of the war. The consequent growth of the peace movement, which Senator Eugene McCarthy had harnessed to a presidential campaign, drove President Lyndon Johnson to announce in March that he would not run for reelection.