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Black History: Athletes who stood up for social justice
Black athletes like Jim Brown, Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith and Colin Kaepernick are connected through America’s sports history.
staff video, USA TODAY
There’s something you may not know about Tommie Smith.
Smith, who with John Carlos raised a Black fist at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, creating one of the most iconic moments of the 20th century, was far from a leftist radical.
Radical was how history, for decades, portrayed Smith. In some ways, that’s how he’s still portrayed. But he was the opposite of that. He was centrist. He was, well, quintessentially American.
He thought of joining the military. He was a member of the Reserve Officer’s Training Corps (ROTC) while at San Jose State. He considered becoming a cop. Or even a teacher. Smith saw his life on a predictable trajectory, a low-key one, which is striking considering what he did, and the symbol he’d become.
Then, in that one moment, on top of that podium, fist clenched and raised high, everything changed. It was a simple demonstration of unity with South Africans who were crushed under the weight of apartheid. But with African Americans fighting Jim Crow, it led to his portrayal in the American press as an extremist. Future broadcaster Brent Musburger, then working for The Chicago American newspaper, wrote Smith and Carlos were “Black-skinned stormtroopers.”
“I wanted to do what was right,” Smith told USA TODAY. “There was no other reason. It was that simple for me. People before me did what was right, at great costs to them, and it was my turn.”
Those few seconds of Smith’s life eventually led to the intersection of two American heroes who were separated by decades, a podium and a knee.
In Smith’s case, the eventual adulation and appreciation of his protest came begrudgingly and glacially.
In Colin Kaepernick’s case, a murder changed how he was viewed almost in a flash.
Kaepernick remains blackballed by the NFL but after the tragic killing of George Floyd, and a worldwide racial reckoning, Kaepernick phase-shifted almost instantly into a different reality. Much of the nation suddenly said in unison: “Colin, you were right. Our bad.”
Kaepernick launched a publishing house, Kaepernick Publishing, and started a production company, Ra Vision Media. The latter partnered with Walt Disney Co. to create shows about race and social injustice.
Thus, Kaepernick was able to witness the fruits of his sacrifice, while Smith, and others like him, weren’t often granted the same permission structure by society to do so.
But Smith wouldn’t change a thing.
“I’m happy Colin has been able to do all that he’s accomplished,” said Smith. “Yes, there were things taken from me, but I did what I did for people after me. America needed people like me and John at that time. America needed someone like Colin now. Because of Colin, he’ll inspire a new group of people, and so that line never breaks. It will be there when it’s needed.”
“I think about Colin all the time,” Smith said. “I think about how important he is to history, and how he understood that he needed to bring attention to something. That’s the key, bringing attention. You have to force people to see what they don’t want to see. He’s a brave American. A true American.”
The reasons Smith and Kaepernick gave for protesting are remarkably similar.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color,” Kaepernick told NFL Media in 2016. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
Smith represents the connective tissue from past sports civil rights heroes to current ones. The commonality is the viral racism they faced while reaching remarkable heights. Jesse Owens embarrassed Hitler at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin by winning four gold medals. President Franklin D. Roosevelt refused to meet with Owens after he returned home (which was customary).
“When I came back to my native country, after all the stories about Hitler, I couldn’t ride in the front of the bus,” Owens said. “I had to go to the back door. I couldn’t live where I wanted. I wasn’t invited to shake hands with Hitler, but I wasn’t invited to the White House to shake hands with the President, either.”
In 1908 Jack Johnson became the first Black to win a heavyweight championship, and his victory over a white opponent caused race riots across the country. Fritz Pollard became the first Black coach in the NFL in 1920, leading the Akron Pros in Ohio, a state and city where the Ku Klux Klan had immense power. Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947 yet some restaurants, hotels – and even umpires – refused him.
Muhammad Ali stood against the Vietnam War, had his heavyweight title taken from him, was vilified, and then like Smith, decades later was cherished. Curt Flood fought for free agency and ultimately helped open it up. The true nature of his sacrifice was never fully realized.
There are others not as familiar. Octavius Catto was a Black baseball player who fought for African American voting rights in the late 1800s. Catto also led protests to desegregate the trolleys across Philadelphia, using sit-ins and speeches the way Civil Rights leaders would across the South decades later.
He was murdered when a white man shot him in 1871 with a gunshot to his chest. He wasn’t formally recognized for his accomplishments by the city of Philadelphia until 2017, when a statue was erected near City Hall.
More than 140 years after Cato’s death, players from the WNBA have led the sports social justice movement before their NBA counterparts and even Kaepernick.
Yet it’s impossible not to compare Smith with Kaepernick, and to see how they took two different paths.
When Smith returned home, he was kicked out of the ROTC; he believes it was because of his protest. He’d been portrayed by some in the media as anti-police and flag, so joining the police wasn’t an option. There were no endorsements or widespread adulation. There was scorn and a refusal by many to understand him.
“Back when I did it, it was seen as a militant act,” Smith said. “There were people who thought what I did was extreme. It was treated like an attack on democracy when what I did was very democratic. It wasn’t just me on that stand. I represented a lot of people who couldn’t be there.”
There are finally some full-throated efforts to document his importance. With Drawn Arms, a documentary released in December that chronicles Smith’s life and that moment, which was executive produced by Grammy winner John Legend and actor Jesse Williams.
So many people know about that moment even if they don’t immediately recognize Smith. His house recently needed repairs after some flooding. One of the workers saw that iconic picture in Smith’s home and said, “I remember that guy. That was great what he did.”
“That guy,” Smith told the man, “was me.”