Springfield College welcomed Olympic gold-medalist, coach, educator, and social justice activist Tommie Smith as the keynote speaker at the eighth annual Martin Luther King Jr. Lecture on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021. This year’s lecture was titled, “Power of a Dream. Unity Wins.” The Martin Luther King Jr. Lecture honors the history of inclusion and diversity at Springfield College and is presented by the Division of Inclusion and Community Engagement.
“Don’t think that you are alone when you dream and things don’t go like you think they should go because a dream is hard to understand, especially if you don’t stay on track or move forward," stated Smith as part of the virtual presentation. "The power of a dream is yourself. Unity wins is others thinking basically on that track, but a bit different.”
At the 1968 Summer Olympics, Smith won the gold medal in the 200-meter sprint finals with a record-breaking time of 19.83 seconds. While on the podium during the medal ceremony and national anthem, Smith raised his fist in the air, along with bronze-medal winning teammate John Carlos, to protest racism and injustice against African-Americans in the United States.
Smith has been asked numerous times, what he was doing and/or thinking in that moment. His response - “Praying. I was praying underneath the bleachers, I was praying on the walk up to the victory stand, and the entire time I was up there. It was not a ‘Black Power Salute’ as has been written on numerous occasions. It was a ‘human rights salute’ more than anything else,” said Smith. The story of the “silent gesture” is captured for all time in the 1999 HBO TV documentary: Fists of Freedom.
Since the games of the 19th Olympiad, Smith has enjoyed a distinguished career as a coach, educator, and activist. Smith served as a faculty member at Santa Monica College for 27 years, teaching and coaching while serving on academic committees. Smith has dedicated a total of 37 years to educating and teaching youth.
“I always use the principle of don’t let people drag you so low as to hate," added Smith. "It means accepting the thoughts of others you don’t necessarily have to believe. You can make your own decision down the line. Like young folks are now. If you were born in 1968 or alive in 1968, you would probably disagree with what [I] did. But I look beyond my thoughts and I could see my need in terms of the sacrifice for that dream.”
Smith’s courageous leadership, talent, and activism have earned him well-deserved acclaim and awards. In 2008, he earned the Peace Abby Courage of Conscience Award, and the ESPN ESPY’s Arthur Ashe Courage Award. In 2018, he received the Dresden Peace Prize.
Smith’s documentary With Drawn Arms, released in October 2020, is available to view on Starz. Smith is the newest face to appear on the iconic Wheaties cereal box. In April, he will be honored with a limited-edition box in recognition of his defining moment protesting racial inequality. All proceeds will benefit the NAACP.
Springfield College started the Martin Luther King Jr. Lecture in 2014 as part of the 50th anniversary celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s commencement speech and honorary degree presentation at Springfield College. King visited Springfield College on June 14, 1964, just 10 months after the “I Have a Dream” speech, and six months before receiving the Nobel Peace Prize.
Also as part of the evening, the third annual Springfield College Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Awards were presented. The awards recognize those who have made a significant contribution to diversity and inclusion on campus or in the Springfield community.
See more events hosted by Springfield College in recognition of Black History Month:
Springfield College is an independent, nonprofit, coeducational institution founded in 1885. Approximately 4,100 students, including 2,500 full-time undergraduate students, study at its main campus in Springfield, Mass., and at its regional campuses across the country. Springfield College inspires students through the guiding principles of its Humanics philosophy – educating in spirit, mind, and body for leadership in service to others.