'Black Power' Olympian Tommie Smith tried to mend rift with Jesse Owens in unanswered letter

Tommie Smith, the Olympic gold medal-winning sprinter who was part of one of the Summer Games’ most iconic images, says that he wrote a letter to another iconic African-American Olympian a decade after Smith and U.S. teammate John Carlos raised their fists atop the medal podium at the 1968 Mexico City Games, a Black Power salute meant to strike a blow against racism.

“I wrote Jesse Owens a letter around 1979. I wonder where that letter went,” says Smith. “I think (Owens) was living in Arizona at the time. I received no response. This is the first I’ve told people about that letter. Take that and go with it.”

While the just-released film “Race” depicts Owens’ life in the three years leading up to his historic performance in the 1936 Berlin Olympics — when he won four gold medals in track and field in front of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany — Owens’ post-Olympic life and career are not addressed.

But Smith chuckles when he thinks back to the Owens he interacted with during the Mexico City Games, when Owens was an International Olympic Committee representative and trying to encourage athletes not to stir up trouble by politicizing the Games.

“He did appear at the Olympic Games to participate verbally with the Olympians there. He did come to the meetings, and told us he’s aware of what’s going on,” says Smith, who was part of a group of athletes who advocated boycotting the ‘68 Games. “The Olympic Committee wanted (Owens) to come and talk to us about possible action that we might take and that it would not be a good idea to do it, and if there was something that he could help us with, tell him what we wanted and he would take it to the Olympic Committee and see what the committee could do.

-/AFP/Getty Images

Jesse Owens wasn't on board with Tommie Smith and John Carlos' 'Black Power' salute at the 1968 Olympics.

 

“But at that particular time, we were not concerned with what the Olympic Committee could do for us. It was beyond the Olympic Committee by then. You can see that he was being used.”

In his 2011 autobiography “The John Carlos Story,” Carlos was even more pointed in his criticism of Owens, writing, “The person who most staggered Lee (Evans), Tommie, me and honestly just about everyone else on the US track squad was the legend himself, Jesse Owens. I had an opportunity to meet Jesse in Mexico City and make no mistake: he was there to try and stop us from doing anything political on the track.”

Carlos wrote that later in his life, and before Owens died in 1980, that the two men reconciled. Carlos wrote that Owens told him, “I feel as though (Carlos) made more headway ‘going strong’ than I ever did with

 

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