Tommie Smith: The Black Power salute


There are a number of ways of making a protest. Some, if we're led to believe, want to loot and burn down stores and throw bricks at the police to make a point while others tend to use small gestures which tend to have a big impact.

Tommie Smith decided to make a stand and his choice of protest has stood the test of time as one of the most powerful moments in the history of the modern world. Smith is of course the American 200m runner who won the gold medal at the 1968 Olympics in New Mexico. He was also the holder of 11 world records at one time both indoor and outdoor events.

But even if you don't remember his name, you will perhaps have seen the image of the 'Black Power' demonstration. Two men, Smith and compatriot John Carlos each raising fist wearing a black glove on the podium during the medal ceremony. Johnson and Carlos, prominent Black athletes from the USA, used one of the world's biggest sporting stages to highlight the poverty and civil injustice of their community in America. Smith hung a black scarf around his neck while Carlos wore a string of beads to show respect for the victims of racist lynching.

The protest didn't go down too well with right-wing America, with both Smith and Carlos, who won the bronze medal, receiving death threats and were forced to live underground after being ostracised by society. Smith's protest had a negative impact on his life and he worried about the safety of himself and his family.

Smith said,

“I was afraid on the victory stand, but I was there for human rights issues and I knew I had the opportunity to make a stand," recalled Smith, who was in the UK earlier this month supporting the athletes of tomorrow. Going into it I didn't know what I was going to do, but I knew I had to win my race to be in a position to do what had to be done. Before the Olympics all the black athletes discussed our options at a meeting in Denver, Colorado. We all decided the Olympic Games was too important to boycott so it was decided that each athlete would do what he thought was necessary to show his allegiance to human rights. And that's why you saw different black athletes doing different things.”

He added,

“We were two athletes, though, who decided to make a stronger stand because our belief in human rights was a lot stronger than other black athletes on the team. The reaction to it did stun me, but I thought it was necessary to react because the rest of the world was viewing it. Whatever I did, America was going to see it as a negative because they viewed Tommie Smith being a black athlete as a negative anyway. I was vilified when I got back to America, but what's new?”

After hanging up his running shoes, Smith qualified as a teacher and got a job in Ohio. He also played as a wide receiver in the NFL with Cincinnati Bengals. Smith still feels that the "Black Power" salute, which Smith refers to as the "human rights" salute, is still not accepted by people in America as they don't understand the impact of it.

But the image of Smith and Carlos on the podium is still one of the most iconic in not only Olympic, but sporting history. In 1936, it was Jesse Owens who laughed in the face of Adolf Hitler by winning four gold medals at the Berlin Games which were supposed to show the superiority of the Aryan race. Smith's gesture in 1968 is one which took a lot of courage but made an impact in highlighting the injustice the Black community faced in America.

Picture: Gold medallist Tommie Smith (centre) and John Carlos (right) along with Australian athlete Peter Norman (left).

Archived Comments

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Black Is Beautiful.

Two great men amongst many other great Black men who made me even prouder to be Black. I am Black and proud.


I just wanted to let my friends in the UK know that FINALLY, SALUTE the movie is coming to the UK before the Olympics. It's the story of my late uncle Peter Norman and is the first and last film ever to be made with Tommie, John and Peter together. During the film my uncle died so this is the last ever documented interview with all those that were involved in this special time in history.

While i'm at it. It was devastating to watch the issues that took place in the UK during your riots. The fact that if people are angry, have something to protest about or want to make a point, there are many other ways of doing it without the need of violence.

Tommie Smith, John Carlos and Peter Norman were men with a real point to make and they made it without a single word, without any violence and made it whilst also sacrificing their own moment in Olympic History. Surely those who think burning down hard working members of society have nothing but contempt for society.

When SALUTE is released in the UK I would like to donate part of the profits in my uncle's name to those people that lost everything during the riots. So help get behind the film and I'll see you all early next year.

For more info and to check out the trailer go to

Matt Norman
Director / Producer



I fully concur with your points. The problem with the British Government is they have set up a type of 'I am not listening to you' attitude which is very insulting. The Metropolitan Police's behaviour that triggered off August 2011's race riots was disgraceful; especially by an organisation that should now be diverse, and more racially aware.

The behaviour of the Met. Police - which mirrors that of many other organisations in the United Kingdom - was shocking; especially when you add the deception that shrouded this case. Knowing that no one was going to be made accountable definitely contributed to those riots. The government has done very little to address those issues; rather concentrating on protecting the rich City of London.

I travelled around a number of cinemas in London to try to watch Salute. I wasn't able to, but, later found out that it would be coming out on DVD. I will definitely get one. I would like watch and learn more about the union of three great men who made a great sacrifice that has opened the doors for me and other Black people.