ATLANTA – About five decades before NFL players took a knee to protest police brutality and social injustice, African-American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos defiantly raised black-gloved fists during an Olympic medal ceremony to protest the way black people were treated in the U.S.
A new exhibition at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, “With Drawn Arms: Glenn Kaino and Tommie Smith,” seeks to forge a connection between that protest on Oct. 16, 1968, and the present. A collaboration between Smith and conceptual artist Glenn Kaino, it includes sculptures, drawings, excerpts from a documentary, and items from Smith’s archives.
Smith, 74, won the gold medal and set a world record, and Carlos took bronze in the 200 meters at the 1968 Summer Olympics. The pair were sent home from the games in Mexico City for their podium protest and faced vilification back home.
Smith knew the world’s eyes were on him and felt he had to take a stand against injustice, he said.
“In terms of doing the righteous thing or the right thing, there’s no way I could do it any differently or even any better than I did then,” he told The Associated Press in a recent phone interview.
As someone who wasn’t even born when Smith raised his fist, the 46-year-old Kaino said in the same phone interview that a goal of their collaboration was to tell Smith’s story and to ensure that it continued to resonate with subsequent generations.
The pair began working together in 2013, three years before then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick knelt during the national anthem, saying he was protesting racial inequality and police brutality.
With so many of the issues Smith was protesting persisting half a century later, he said he supports Kaepernick and others who are using their own high profiles to focus the public’s attention on injustice.
His advice for the younger athletes is to be prepared: “Understand why you’re doing it and who’s standing with you and then you move forward from there.”
The Smith-Kaino collaboration came about by chance. Kaino, who said he’s interested in using art to instigate positive social change, had a photo of Smith’s protest taped to his computer in his studio.
A friend walked in one day, pointed at the photo and said, “Hey, Coach Smith. Want to meet him?” Before he knew it, Kaino was on a plane from Los Angeles to Atlanta to meet Smith, who lives just outside the city in Stone Mountain.
The centerpiece of the exhibition, “Bridge,” represents a path leading from Smith’s protest to the present, Kaino said.
The 100-foot-long sculpture comprises about 150 gold-colored casts of Smith’s arm suspended from the ceiling in an undulating wave stretching dramatically across a large gallery.
Smith said he was overwhelmed to the point of silence when he first saw it, feeling like Kaino had given physical form to ideas he was unable to express.
In a side gallery there’s a life-size, gold-plated replica of the Olympic medal podium and a frame-by-frame presentation of the 200-meter race at the 1968 Olympics with arbitrary smudges in the ink. Another side gallery includes items from Smith’s personal collection – awards, a signed Olympic flag, magazine covers and photos.
Excerpts from a documentary explore Smith’s life and his collaboration with Kaino in a separate gallery.
A sculpture titled “Invisible Man (Salute)” stands in the plaza in front of the museum. From the rear, it’s a lifelike statue of Smith on the podium with his arm raised. But the front is a flat, mirrored surface that seems to blend into the surroundings and reflects visitors’ own images back at them.