Sacrifice Not for Sale: Olympic Gold Medalist and Activist Tommie Smith Discusses the Impact of His Latest Film and the Expansiveness of Social Justice and Equality

Black Olympic medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos caused controversy when they held up the Black power sign at the 1968 Olympics. Image: Bettman/Getty Images

The 2021 Tokyo Olympics comes after a year of trial and turmoil, the likes of which have strengthened calls for change and equality around the world. More than 50 years ago, Olympic gold medal-winning sprinter Tommie Smith raised his fist atop the podium at the 1968 Olympic Games—and, by doing so, incited the growth of powerful protest in the streets and across sports.

In With Drawn Arms, produced by Smith, visual artist and filmmaker Glenn Kaino (In & Of Itself), and co-director Afshin Shahidi (Prince: A Private View)—audiences are taken right into the play-by-play of the track-and-field race and the punishing aftermath that came after his silent protest alongside fellow Olympian John Carlos. Now, Mexico City has morphed into Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium and with the International Olympic Committee still restricting demonstrations, athletes continue to find ways to spotlight issues of concern happening around the globe.

With Drawn Arms offers a greater insight into the meaning behind Smith’s actions—who alongside his wife Delois, was encouraged to find the light within and pull himself from a very dark place—and documents Kaino and Shahidi’s quest to represent the act and reframe it as a force for continued growth and change.

EBONY had the honor of chatting with the activist athlete and both of the film’s directors about the art within the sacrifice, the expansiveness of the vision for social justice and for equality, and the impact of the next-gen sports activists on the world.

EBONY: How did With Drawn Arms bring everyone together from the development of the exhibit to this released documentary?

Glenn Kaino: I’ve been a long time fan and student of Tommie Smith. As mentioned in the documentary, I had a small picture of that moment from 1968 with him and John Carlos on my computer. A friend of mine happened to be one of Tommie’s former athletes and asked if I wanted to meet him. 

Through a whole series of circumstances, I ended up in Atlanta on Tommie’s couch, having a meeting with him. From there, we struck up a rich partnership that has led to this moment with With Drawn Arms. Afshin [Shahidi] and I have had a working relationship for many years and upon earning Tommie’s trust, I felt he was the right person to honor Tommie and his legacy, while shepherding the responsibility of speaking truth to power from our collective shoulders to the next generation.

Tommie Smith: Who would have thought that those times I spoke at colleges would have an impact on such a proud and great person?! To share with you where my mind was during the time, I went silent for three or four years before moving to Georgia because I didn’t know quite how to expound upon my life since it was getting to a point where people didn’t hear much about me anymore. Sure, I’m known in Los Angeles or in Santa Monica, but there was a fear of the legacy giving away to time.

To make a long story short, Glenn and I did talk about With Drawn Arms as an art installation and as a feature documentary. And with the help of my wife, Afshin, and Glenn, we were able to take his dream and expand it through conversation and art. I’m very proud of this relationship and how this all came together for you and others to enjoy.

For you, Mr. Shahidi, what were your initial perceptions of seeing that moment between Tommie Smith, John Carlos, and the Olympic attendees? What were some of the feelings involved that changed once you had a chance to speak with Tommie directly?

Afshin Shahidi: That’s a really great question actually, because it was—and still is—an indelible image that has cemented itself in my mind since arriving in the United States at only seven-years-old. A few quick facts: I was born the year after that image was taken and was in junior high the first time I came across that photograph of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympic Games. I wondered about those men, about how whatever was within them to stand up, did they know what sort of difference that sort of defiance made in other people’s lives? I know [that] at least in Iran, something like that would have, but harsher actions would have been taken in response to such protests. The opportunity to actually meet Tommie and hear everything from his perspective and what’s happened for the 50 years since then leading up to this point was incredible. 

Glenn and I took this opportunity to share his story with the world very seriously, so to be the selected caretakers of Tommie Smith’s story specifically has been an honor.

This year’s Olympic Games has already found athletes defying the IOC’s wishes to not have any public protests or demonstrations of defiance. Mr. Smith, I wanted to get your thoughts on actions taken by Gwen Berry during the qualifying rounds of the 2021 Olympic trials.

TS: Athletes haven’t had a chance to make any kind of verbal statement from the 1936 Games all the way up to the 1968 Games—and beyond. The USOC, which is now the IOC, stuck to its rules and regulations, leaving younger athletes such as myself and John Carlos at the time to take the opening to speak out. It took a lot of trials, tribulations, and sacrifices to make a statement. 

I suffered those indignities and consequences, and they opened the doors up to the likes of Gwen Berry and others to say something when they see something wrong. The IOC is hesitant to talk to any of us or give in to the idea of change, even though it represents 200 countries who have something to speak out on. When Gwen stood up for what is going on in this country, or when you see [Sha’Carri Richardson] being disqualified over cannabis use—there are a lot of things that as athletes we can step up and speak out against.

This year is going to be ripe for big change because the athletes are stepping up to make the world a better place to be in. From LeBron James to Naomi Osaka, you will hear and see more initiative to stand up and stand out. Not only in track-and-field, but in soccer, the WNBA, the NBA, and those athletes who are immersed in that energy will move forward as a group, united.

GK: I’ll add this small extra bit about the Olympics. It is one of the few times where countries and its citizens can be unabashedly nationalistic. In this country, the idea that there is such a crisis in terms of racial formation, freedom of speech, and what America represents—that what Tommie has done in telling his complete story is a huge (and necessary) sacrifice that needed to be conveyed to all athletes at this very moment.

No spoilers, but, in the documentary, it is noted that you picked cotton at an early age, Mr. Smith. I’m not sure if that is something that most people know, but how do you see this documentary impacting the next generation of athletes who are already driven to advocate for unaddressed issues?

TS: I hope the youth of today realize the situation that I went through for these other opportunities to happen. The people who are marching forward are very necessary to grow the community and the world citizenship around ideas of equality, human decency, fair and positive growth for those who have been oppressed or held under oppression. 

The chance they’re taking to stand up and speak out is a sacrifice. For me, those sacrifices in the cotton fields, those sacrifices made in attending a very racist school, those sacrifices in maintaining my academic prowess and athletic abilities are reasons why we are able to continue to move forward. Those steps cannot be taken without the foundation being laid.

We didn’t have YouTube or Google to research. The library was our wealth of knowledge, and I’d like to believe that this generation of change agents know that I am here. I am here to explain [what was left out of the history books] to you. All they have to do is let myself and others who are still here know that they want to listen.

GK: Also, I think, for the younger generation, it is interesting to see that Tommie’s story is more complex and nuanced than believed. There was this assumption that after 1968 Tommie became famous and rice, but you realize in With Drawn Arms that that wasn’t the case. He paid some serious dues and made great sacrifices that limited his own opportunities. In many ways, he is still sort of recovering from the oppression he experienced after the Olympic Games.

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In With Drawn Arms, Mr. Smith, you share with Glenn and Afshin, a wishlist of people you’d like to meet, which included Oprah Winfrey and then-President Barack Obama. My question to the room is: were there any never-before-told stories involving you all that hit the cutting room floor?

GK:
We could’ve made a whole two-hour comedy film off trying to get into the White House to see President Obama. It is incredibly hard to get time with the White House, and we worked for months and months to make that happen, until it took a leap of faith to really create something out of the effort we put in.

We all flew to D.C. and—this is something I never shared before—we arrived without an invitation to the White House. The White House secretary did their best to set us up, but left it at mostly “stay ready so you don’t have to get ready” should President Obama be available to see you all. He wakes up incredibly early to get his day started, so all bets are off on whether we’d see him or not. 

We booked a hotel within walking distance to the White House, just in case they called. We have no idea how the president’s schedule is going to work. “Does this mean they’ll call us at say, like 7:42, and we only have a few minutes to get there?!” We didn’t know! So, it’s the next day, and we’re looking stressed when the phone call comes in at a quarter to nine— but, you’ll have to watch the film to witness how it all worked out.

But that was a leap of faith. The same happened when we went to meet Colin Kaepernick.

AS: I don’t know if you remember this, Glenn and Tommie, but when we interviewed Megan Rapinoe, it was a last minute thing. She had just wrapped a big Nike shoot and then came to our really small and cramped hotel where we had a bed sheet hanging on the wall, with an iron board in the mix to just break up the image. We told her what she was walking into, but she trusted us, and luckily it looked great and she was able to shine in the film because of it.

It was the most amateurish moment of the process, but we really knew what we were doing and how to do it right.

TS: You just have to step out on faith. The stuff we were doing was in step with each other. Glenn and I were running our lips upfront. Of course, my wife, Delois, was leading both of us, and Afshin—who’d never missed a word—was directing to make sure everything was put into perspective. I think we make a great group because we’re able to keep things moving and in position.

And with them all, they know that I was afraid to meet Oprah, thinking that she would look at me and slap me. [Laughs] I have seven sisters and they always beat me up. They’re very bright and they act like Oprah a lot of times, and they’ve inspired me with wanting to continue to tell my story. When Oprah says she knows you, she’ll tell you in a minute in a way that is funny, but later on you realize that she was right. That’s why I was a chicken to meet her. I’ve eaten my Wheaties now, so I’m ready to go. 

There’s a through line about good trouble in With Drawn Arms that incorporates the late John Lewis speaking on Mr. Smith and the 1968 Olympic Games. What do you recount about meeting him and how his legacy impacts this film and its prospective audience?

TS:
I met Congressman Lewis in his office in D.C. and we talked about backgrounds. It was amazing to meet the man. I’m in this office of eternity. The conversation between us was much too short because we talked about these similar stories and [it] made me kind of cry. We had the same background when it came to family, when it came to church, and as far as picking cotton in our past, for sure.

He had miniature bales of cotton on his office desk that rather reinforced who he was and what he had overcome. He will be a truth and a light for me. And with my background, it got to a point where I knew that I had a friend. This friend was part of the world. He would say something and he would do something about it. Listening to him would make you a better person because of the feeling of truth that comes out of a person who really sacrificed his whole life, just so we could be.

I think one of the most striking things about John was not only the power of his conviction but also his grace. You hear about it and you read about it, but when you’re blessed to actually witness the amount of grace and spiritual understanding he had to enact change—it makes me very happy. I think that he would be very proud and happy for the legacy of what With Drawn Arms represents.

GK: I know that one of the messages that Mr. Lewis and Dr. King communicated was about the expansiveness of the vision for social justice and for equality. I mentioned in the film this idea of passing the baton, and for Tommie to be an example of this through his words and actions. Hopefully another generation of creatives are inspired by our work and take it even further and tell the story in a new way, raising a fist to continued growth and change, and have agency to—no pun intended—run with it.

Kevin L. Clark is an editor and screenwriter who covers the intersection of music, pop culture and social justice. Follow him @KevitoClark.

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