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Korby's Connections: Visit by Olympics icon in 1970 was memorable


February 21, 2020

Cloquet schools have shined in academics, athletics, the fine arts, and other extracurricular events going way back to the start of the 20th century. Over that time, the school district has been an innovator, taken chances, and exposed students to not only regional leaders but nationally acclaimed figures.

Two events that happened in Cloquet around 1970 — when I was a high school student — had a profound effect on me. I’m not sure of all teachers and administrators responsible for these events, but they were very forward thinking and the ideas remain important and in the news in today’s world. The two events were a visit and assembly speech by Tommie Smith and the weeklong Students Concerned About a Ravaged Environment (SCARE) program.

Tommie Smith is a black athlete and scholar who grew up in California in the 1950s and 1960s. He was an incredibly fast runner and set California sprinting records that still stand. He was the star of his high school football, basketball, and track and field teams. He enrolled at San Jose State University in 1966 and proceeded to set records in the 200 meters.

There was a lot going on in America when he made it onto the U.S. Olympic team in 1968. It marked the year of the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy. It was also an election year with the candidates Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey vying for president. There was turmoil at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, protests against the war in Vietnam, and race riots in major U.S. cities.

Mexico City was to host the 1968 Summer Olympics in October and just prior to the games the government there repressed a labor and student protest where many people were killed. Due to apartheid in South Africa and Rhodesia, many countries and athletes threatened to boycott the Olympics if these two countries participated. The U.S. considered this protest but elected to attend. Tommie was nursing a pulled muscle and did not extend himself in the 200-meter qualifying heats and had just average times. In the final event sprint, he went all out, taking the gold medal and setting an Olympic record of 19.83 seconds. It was the first time the 20-second barrier had been broken. His teammate and training partner, John Carlos, took third.

On the podium for the medal presentation and during the playing of the national anthem, Smith and Carlos wore black socks and no shoes and each raised a fist and bowed their heads. Their symbolic statement was to protest racism and injustice against African Americans.

A white Australian, who finished second, wore a badge supporting the Olympic Project for Human Rights. So did Smith and Carlos. It was big news the next day and hugely controversial. Smith and Carlos were banned from the games by International Olympic President Avery Brundage, an American.

It changed Smith and Carlos forever. They had threats on their lives, endured job challenges, and experienced hard times. What is impressive, I think, is that only a few years years after Mexico City, Smith was addressing primarily white high school students in Cloquet telling the story about his challenges.

Being such a great athlete, Smith did play in the NFL for a couple of years as a wide receiver for the Cincinnati Bengals. “There was nothing but a raised fist in the air and a bowed head acknowledging the American flag and not symbolizing a hatred for it,” he has said. I remember digging out my old Sports Illustrated issue to look at the pictures of Smith and Carlos. Looking back, this is one of the most iconic and important moments in sports history. And Cloquet, was able to bring Smith to town.

There were a few of us who were able to spend time with Smith in a small group setting and get his autograph, ask him questions about race and prejudice, and hear his personal viewpoints. It was a very special opportunity.

It was 50 years later that San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick would take a knee at the playing of the anthem. He ended up basically banned from football. It took many years for Smith and Carlos to be recognized as heroes. Things have changed but not as fast as projected or expected. We still have a long way to go to understand each other as humans.

The other significant event from 1970 was the Students Concerned About a Ravaged Environment week. Social studies teacher Jack Pichotta was the leader of this project. Imagine learning about the environment 50 years ago and how we still struggle with this same issue today. To say it was forward thinking was a great understatement.

Students heard from nationally acclaimed experts on air and water pollution, automobile emissions, forest harvesting, carbon dioxide limits, manufacturing challenges. I will offer more recollections on this fantastic program in a future column. Let’s keep these unique learning opportunities coming to Cloquet so 50 years from now today’s students can reminisce.


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