Celebrating the Olympics and Black History Month

This week in North Philly Notes, we pay tribute to both the Olympics and Black History Month by reposting our Q&A with Tommie Smith for his book Silent Gesture.

Q: Congratulations on your book. Why did you wait almost 40 years to tell your story?
A: My life wasn’t ready to be told in story until there was a closure with my athletic, teaching, and coaching career. The time I needed to devote to such an adventure was too great. You have to begin somewhere to be great. The race began in 1968 and now it is time to tell the journey of “how did I get to this race, and where did I go when it was over?”

Q: You say you “never regretted” your actions on the victory stand, “and never will”—that it was, as you write—”something I felt I had no choice in doing.” Did you think at the time that your protest would become one of the most famous protests in sports history?
A: I do not feel remorseful about the act on the victory stand as it was an act of “faith.” Because I believe in “hope” for our changing society, the evidence of non-equality had to be challenged. At the time, my “visual” on the victory stand was not thought of as a portrait to be classified as a picture of history, but as a cry for freedom.

Q: Do you think that such a protest could take place now?
A: Making the same gesture now is defeat; let us repeat the cry with sounds of understanding and deliverance.
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“This is a book about principle, commitment, belief; and consequences. And the consequences of consequences. Tommie Smith says his gesture was done in the name of human rights, and in these pages, he offers himself up, in the fullest-the complexity, the scars, the pain, and the affirmation of his own humanity. Should there ever be an appointed time, would that I might show half the commitment and courage. Bravissimo!”
Delroy Lindo

Q: Can you briefly describe the Olympic Project for Human Rights and discuss your participation in it?
A: The Olympic Project for Human Rights was a non-violent platform used in the athletic arena as a cry for freedom. It originated on the San Jose State University campus in 1967. I was one athlete who chose to involve myself for the human rights issues.

Q: You and your family received death threats and hate mail before and after Mexico City. Were you prepared for this? How did you handle living in fear?
A: My family received hate mail and death threats which altered our daily routine, but we had to continue to remain calm and socially aware. There are still some [people] who do not change and there are some who have made progress.

Q: You have been “forever linked” with John Carlos (Bronze medal winner at the 1968 Mexico City games) on and off since the Olympics. How has your relationship with him been over the years since your “silent gesture”?
A: I had not known John Carlos until my senior year in college, in 1967. Since then, my response to John has been a respectful acquaintance.

Q: You talk about how San Jose State welcomed you back and dedicated a statue to you and John Carlos. How have attitudes towards you—and your actions—changed over time?
A: When I returned to the San Jose State University for the statue dedication, attitudes were fresh, warm and respectful. The student body and administration was knowledgeable and unafraid in their quest to identify pioneers from the past and ideally, former students such as John Carlos and me.

Q: You have worked as a track & field coach and talk about your coaches in Silent Gesture. Do you have any particular mentors and coaches that influenced you?
A: There are two coaches in my past that I will forever remember because of their knowledge and their social attitude. They were positive “in the time of need.” Lloyd C. “Bud” Winter, my college coach and Bill Walsh, my professional football area coach with the Cincinnati Bengals.

Q: Silent Gesture dispels the rumors that you were a member of the Black Panthers. Your book also clears the record that the Mexico City Olympic Committee did not take for your medals back, or throw you out of the Olympic Village. Can you discuss these rumors?
A: Tommie Smith has never been a Black Panther. I am still in possession of my gold medal—I won the race fair and square, and so the medal is mine. I stayed in the Olympic Village until the race was over, and I returned the next day to get my belongings. As I was leaving, the press was everywhere, so kicking me out of the Olympic Village was a “helpful exit.”

Q: I understand at one point in time you were interested in selling your medals. Is that true? Why did you consider this?
A: I will answer a question with a question…Can you find a Humanitarian donor for $500,000?

Q: You are a hero to many for your actions—who were your heroes?
A: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a man who had a Dream of Freedom and Equality, and my father, Richard Smith, who taught me pain is obvious, but how you react is not.

Q:  What do you think yo ur legacy will be?
A: I want to leave a legacy that says, “Tommie Smith was a Man who also had a Dream and a Vision and his Standing was not in vain.”

 

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Celebrating the life and times of the extraordinary Octavius Catto, and the first civil rights movement in America

This week, in North Philly Notes, we honor Octavius Valentine Catto, the subject of Daniel R. Biddle and Murray Dubin’s majestic biography, Tasting Freedom. Catto is being honored with a statue that will be unveiled on the apron of Philadelphia’s City Hall on September 26 at 11:00 am. 

A video interview with the authors of Tasting Freedom

 

A Q&A with the authors of Tasting Freedom

Q: Octavius Catto was a pioneer of the Civil Rights movement in the Civil War era. Where did you hear about him, why is he so little known, and what prompted you to write his life and times?
A: Murray discovered him in 1993 while doing research for a book he was writing on the history of South Philadelphia. Dan heard a historian talking on the radio about black life in the city in the 19th century and discussing Catto. Catto is little known because he died so young, before he had a chance to become prominent on the national scene. We both thought his life was extraordinary.

Q: How and where did you do your research? What surprises did you discover?
A: We did our research in Pennsylvania, New York, Washington D.C., South Carolina and New Jersey in churches, college reading rooms, and the Library of Congress. We scoured diaries, letters, newspapers, census records, box scores and song sheets in an effort that took more than seven years. We didn’t realize until more than a year into the work that there was a civil rights movement in the 19th century.

Q: Tasting Freedom provides an extensive history of the Civil War era and how African Americans faced racism on the baseball field, on streetcars, as voters, in the military etc. How did Catto and his “band of brothers” combat this discrimination?
A: He and his contemporaries in the North needed to fight for many rights that whites took for granted. Their weapons were their organizing skills to mold public opinion and educate whites, exemplary public behavior, bravery on the Civil War battlefield and physical courage in the face of threats and bodily harm to integrate the streetcars.

Q: Catto taught at the Institute for Colored Youth. He was very instrumental in educating free slaves and helping them get established. His famous speech at a graduation begins, “There Must Come a Change!” It started as a history of the school and ended with a call for equal rights. It had an immediate impact and was reprinted and circulated widely. How far-reaching was his speech?
A: The Institute for Colored Youth sent more teachers South to teach freed slaves and their children than any other school in the nation. It’s clear that I.C.Y. students were listening to Catto.

Q: Catto’s story intersects with historical figures such as the “feminist”/abolitionist Lucretia Mott, and famous orators like Frederick Douglass, with whom he shared stages. How did Catto establish himself in Philadelphia society and make the social/political connections he did?
A: Catto was a prominent educator who ran the boys school at the Institute for Colored Youth, the best school for black youth in the city, and arguably the best school for youth of any color. That elevated him to an important role in the community. He was a charismatic speaker who was the son of a well-known clergyman. Active in civil rights activities in his 20s, he fought the same battles that Douglass and Mott were fighting. And he was a rising Republican leader in the black community.

Tasting Freedom_AD(12-16-09) finalQ: Tasting Freedom has a terrific chapter about baseball and Catto’s experiences with the Pythians. Unable to integrate baseball, interracial matches were played unofficially with Catto’s team playing in the first game between white and black clubs. Did he have the respect of whites, or did he have a negative reputation?
A: The Philadelphia Athletics, the top white team in the city in the 1860s, permitted the Pythians to play on the Athletics’ field and were supporters of Catto’s effort to compete against white teams. It was not uncommon to see white ballplayers in the stands watching Pythian games.

Q: The chapter on the battle for streetcars shows Catto’s strength as an agitator. He tried to change laws. What do you think he could have accomplished had his life not been cut short?
A: That’s the question we wish we could answer. But we’ll try: We believe he would run for public office locally and won, and then would have sought higher office in the state. We also believe he might have received an appointment by the President to represent the United States overseas in a diplomatic position. And we think he may have left Philadelphia at some point to run his own school, perhaps in the South.

Q: You provide detailed descriptions of Catto’s enemies and the reaction to his death and its aftermath. How great was the riot that occurred?
A: Catto was shot to death in an 1871 election-day riot in Philadelphia that was one of the worst days of violence that the city had ever seen. We described the riot in the book as “five blocks in one direction and three in the other.” Scores of black men were shot and beaten and an untold number were scared away from the polls.

Q: You end Tasting Freedom with an epilogue on Catto’s legacy. How do you measure Catto’s contribution to history?
A: Influence is difficult to measure. We know that W.E.B. Du Bois knew about Catto because he wrote about him in “The Philadelphia Negro.” And we know that black leaders in the early 20th century read Du Bois. So it makes sense to say that Catto’s life was known to the black men and women who began the NAACP and who led the Harlem Renaissance. We also know students that Catto taught became civil rights leaders in the South and went on to teach black students across the nation.

Q: So what are two white guys doing writing about African American history?
A: We are newspaper guys and what we care about our good stories. The story of Catto’s life is a great story that no one has ever told. Even more important is the story of the civil rights movement in the 19th century, which has been little told. We thought that putting the two together would be a great yarn.

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