Editor’s Note: This story was first published on Jan. 16, 2018. It is reprinted here as part of our year end coverage.

By Kate Cagle

On the fiftieth anniversary year of Tommie Smith thrusting his fist into the air at the 1968 Olympic games in Mexico City, silent gestures are once again dominating the news.

As he addressed the audience inside World Peace Ikeda Auditorium on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Smith did not mention Colin Kaepernick, the football player who ignited a political firestorm with his decision to kneel during the National Anthem to protest racial injustice.

However, he discouraged his listeners from taking a back seat to history.

“I did not throw a rock and hide my hand so don’t sit in the back row and miss the opportunity of an open forum,” Smith said in a broad speech that touched on faith, hope and unity.

Smith was just 24 years old when he broke the 20-second barrier on the 200-meter sprint, claiming Olympic gold in just 19.83 seconds. The moment that followed became one of the most iconic moments of the 1960’s: as the National Anthem played, Smith and bronze medalist John Carlos bowed their heads and raised black-leather fists into the air.

Looking back, Smith said he was “blessed…to stand at a time when standing for social and racial equality was not a safe indulgence. Especially on a globally magnified stage.” He called it an S.O.S., a “stand of silence.” Much like Kaepernick today who spent 2017 as an unsigned free agent after his silent protests, Smith and Carlos were booed and then suspended by the U.S. Olympic Committee. At the time, sports writers complained the two men had politicized the games.

Smith went on to play football: three seasons for the Cincinnati Bengals. Ten years later, the only man to hold an astonishing 11 world records at the same time, became a Santa Monica College professor and coach. Smith coached young athletes here for nearly 30 years before retiring with his wife to Georgia in 2005. He is now in the SMC Sports Hall of Fame.

Back in Santa Monica for his MLK day speech, Smith told the audience to fight against “social ignorance.”

“Don’t forget that a difference in opinion or understanding strengthens your platform to contribute,” Smith said.

Five local students were presented with education awards by the Westside Coalition: Isabel Cortes (Culver City High School), Emma Fabros (Culver City High School, May Kono (Santa Monica High School, Malaysia Long (Lawndale High School) and Andrew Rodriguez (Susan Miller Dorsey High School).

The Chair of the Human Relations Council, Dr. Karen Gunn, presented Step Up with the Community Light Award at Monday’s program for “enacting the spirit of Dr. King by serving community members experiencing mental health issues.”

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Westside Coalition was founded in 1986 in partnership with the City, SMC, Westside Interfaith Council, NAACP Santa Monica Venice Branch, and other organizations. Their mission state is “to educate adults and youth, to inspire community participation, and to promote the ideals of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. for understanding, knowledge and healing.”

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