May 2007 Interview: Tommie Smith

Download the interview in mp3 format

Intro:
Tommie Smith is a living legend. As a student-athlete at San Jose State University, Smith broke or tied 13 Track and Field world records all while earning his degree in Social Science. Smith went on to earn his masters in Sociology, around the same time he became the only man in the history of Track and Field to hold eleven world records at the same time. But people don’t remember Mr. Smith for his medals. Smith is best known for the stance he took at the Mexico City Summer Olympic Games, in 1968. He had just won the gold for the 200 when he and bronze medalist John Carlos stood at the victory podium with raised fists covered in black leather gloves in a historic stand for black power, liberation and solidarity. If only today’s professional athletes were so courageous. Blackademics, welcome Tommie Smith.

Pierce Freelon:
Okay, so we’re here with Blackademics. My first question, you talk about the Olympic Project for Human Rights as an important organization you were involved with. There was a book recently called 40 Million Dollar Slaves, talking about how athletes now are kind of integrated into this system where human rights is probably one of their last priorities. So I was wondering if you could talk about why that is now. Why aren’t athletes as active as they were with Muhammad Ali and Tommie Smith and John Carlos, back in the day?

Tommie Smith:
Why not now? Well, because at that particular time, we sacrificed so much and made the road so long and wide that the athletes think it’s forever now, but it’s not. In fact you can see this by the problems that we’re having now in athletics especially in our high schools. The athletes don’t get the chances to go where they’re needed because there’s so many other avenues out there to deteriorate their need to be somebody. And the big reason is the almighty dollar. Souls are being bought today because we put ourselves in prison. A slave prison. Because we begin to identify the dollar as more important than equality or pride. So there is no basic answer of our death but that we are dying and the avenues must be shut down so we won’t lose the strength that so many have died for in the past. And it’s called pride. It’s called programic non-destruction. Non-soul destruction. And only you can stop this. I truly wish I could give you, standing here, an antidote. To take or to understand or to believe to stop self-genocide because this is what’s happening.

PF:
Going on with that question, do you think it’s completely self-genocide? How much are the institutions that we’re involved in perpetuating this genocide, because we talked about the prisons and stuff like that. Is it the responsibility.. is it completely the people self-destructing?

TS:
The avenues are so easy now for the system to build more prisons than schools. Because we, with our ideology now in the almighty dollar, are reaping the benefits of our own deaths just so we can be somebody. Instead a ban of pride in the organizational truth of what our forefathers died for. See, the dollar has bought our souls. It has bought our souls not so because much of what we used to have because it wasn’t money, it was pride. How can you trade pride for the dollar? You can’t. With our selfish ideals that we need money for pride. That’s the change. We have been sold land that does not produce. That land has bought our soul because we were souls after the dollar bill. The athletes are getting such a vast amount of money now, just because of an ability that is God-given. And we don’t have the cranial capacity, we don’t have the educational fortitude to understand that we must completely relegate ourselves to the pride of generations. How can you sell that? It’s going to take a breakdown, it’s going to take a breakthrough, that breakthrough is around the corner. But I cannot see it, I just know it’s going to happen. It happened in the 60s and it’s going to happen again.

PF:
Great. Last question, thank you for being so patient. When you look at the picture, the silent gesture picture, you always know Tommie Smith and John Carlos, most people don’t know about the third individual, Peter Norman. And you talked about him being an ally, an Australian ally, standing in solidarity with yall. So I was wondering if you could talk about the importance of allies especially as a white dude, an Australian-so he didn’t come up in the white racist structure of the United States, but I was wondering if you could talk about the importance of allying with others when you’re fighting for human rights, not just Black rights, but human rights as you pointed out earlier.

TS:
Peter Norman, yes he was an Australian. But even Australia in the 1950s I believe, I’ll take the chance of ‘54 or ‘55, Black folks couldn’t become a part of that political culture until after then. So Australia is not really a country that I can pat on the back and say, “good white folks”. They have people of color too. They won’t call them Black. Even those people won’t call themselves Black, they’re called Aborigines, they’re having problems too, they’re of color. But they won’t restrict the belief that it’s because of that, Australia won’t. Peter Norman, he was a humanitarian before he got here. So by him standing on a victory stand with an Olympic Project for Human Rights button on, only meant that he was one who fortified himself against the negative thought of inequality, okay? Not up there supporting us but supporting his belief of being a humanitarian. So when people say, “he supported us, he gave us backing,” do I need a white boy to give me backing? He only stood up on the victory stand to strengthen his cause of a humanitarian with Black athletes, who knew what inequality was.

PF:
Okay, word. Tommie Smith, thank you so much.

TS:
You’re welcome.

PF:
Appreciate that, word.

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