Fifty years have passed since Dr. Tommie C. Smith, 200-meter sprint gold medalist, and bronze medalist John Carlos stood atop the medal podium at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico and gave the Black Power salute.
That moment sent a ripple effect through the entire world, and ultimately changed Smith’s life forever. The latest exhibition at the High Museum of Art titled “With Drawn Arms: Glenn Kaino and Tommie Smith” expands the dialogue around the meaning behind that 90-second protest by opening it up for reinterpretation to a new generation. The exhibit opened Saturday, and it’s the first time Smith, a resident of Stone Mountain, has told his side of the story.
And now, like then, he feels a sense of responsibility.
“I didn’t know I was going to do that, but I knew I was going to do something. Something had to be done,” Smith says. “It was a responsibility to carry a message further than running a race and getting a gold medal…. It was the first action I ever took and it was without words.”
Days before the protest, Smith, who was also a member of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, was warned by Avery Brundage, president of the International Olympic Committee, against any political actions during the Olympics Games. But as an athlete who remained quiet most of his career, he says felt it was time to take a stand.
“You don’t do something like that because it’s cool,” he says. “It was the entire system… The Democratic Convention and the involvement of Blacks in sports that was not identified. Muhammad Ali’s title was taken away and he was put in prison because of his beliefs.
“South Africa and Rhodesia and the apartheid situation, or separate but equal, was just as bad as Plessy vs. Ferguson. …. There were a lot of things happening.”
Glenn Kaino, a Los Angeles based conceptual artist who collaborated on the exhibition with Smith, says he regularly engages change making and revolutionary thinking in his practice. He’s worked with numerous human rights and racial justice activists, and says working with Smith was on his bucket list.
When Kaino sat down with Smith to propose the exhibition he realized that his story was “a lot wider and deeper” than that one image. Kaino says his mission was to reveal Smith as “multi-dimensional” by bringing him out of the frame of a singular narrative.
The exhibit features the cover of the July 15, 1968 edition of Newsweek that pictured Smith with the words “The Angry Black Athlete.” Photos of Smith in his ROTC uniform show him as patriotic, and a case featuring his numerous awards remind visitors of his accomplishments.
The center piece of the exhibit is “Bridge,” a 100-ft. long sculpture of cascading gold arms and a fist suspended from the ceiling. The piece symbolizes the connection between the past and present fight against social injustice. Kaino began working on the exhibition in 2013 and says he never could have imagined the exhibition would open amid the current political climate.
“Two or three years ago when critical mass starting happening with the election and Colin Kaepernick there was more momentum and an urgency to tell the story, but we always endeavored to space the storytelling so Tommie was able to express himself like he had never done before,” Kaino says.
The silent protest at the 1968 Olympics defined Smith’s public life. The fastest man in the world was banned from ever competing in the Olympics again, and he was also discharged from the ROTC for what was deemed “unamerican behavior.”
The backlash Smith suffered isn’t unfamiliar to individuals and institutions who take a stand against injustice. However, Michael Rooks, the High’s Wieland Family curator of modern and contemporary art, says though some people might find the exhibition contentious, he never hesitated to bring it to the museum.
“Of course, we had to open it in Atlanta. We are holding space for people and validating how a lot of people feel,” Rooks says. “The High’s mission is to be a brave space.
“We’re creating living memories for audiences and it will go on. This is one stop for a project that will go on for a while.”