Who’s Afraid of Tommie Smith?

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USA’s Tommie Smith leading the race at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, Mexico. (James Drake / Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

An Alabama school district kept Derrick Barnes, author of a book about Tommie Smith, from speaking. But the community is fighting back.

Tommie Smith can still make the craven recoil like a vampire confronted with sunlight. And the track legend, who along with John Carlos raised his fist following their 200-meter race at the 1968 Olympics, is still needing to fight to have his story told. Smith and Carlos felt compelled to act on the medal stand because their personal glory was less important to them than standing up against racism, white supremacy, and poverty. But in some parts of the United States, just acknowledging that moment has been barred or even criminalized.

In this era of racist book bans, when white fear has been honed to a razor-sharp edge, the next generation may not have the opportunity to learn the Smith/Carlos story. This was seen recently in Hoover, Ala., where the school district canceled a reading by Derrick Barnes, an acclaimed author of young adult books. The National Book Award–nominated writer was going to speak about both his love of reading and the story of Tommie Smith. Barnes has completed Victory. Stand! Raising My Fist for Justice, a YA graphic memoir created with Dawud Anyabwile and Tommie Smith himself. This is exactly the kind of book, complete with breathtaking illustrations and a story of rejection and redemption, that young readers love. Yet the Hoover school district decided that Barnes was too “controversial” to speak to three elementary schools.

As Kent Haines, a math teacher at Simmons Middle School, said to AL.com, “We all teach children who would benefit from the opportunity of meeting an author who looks like them and shares their cultural background and is a role model for them. This was such a great one of those opportunities that we’ve now lost.”

At first, the district said that “contract issues” were preventing Barnes’s visit, but then Superintendent Dee Fowler explained to AL.com that an elementary school principal was contacted by a parent complaining about the “controversial ideas” on Barnes’s social media.

Educators across the Hoover district were outraged, and 140 teachers sent the superintendent a letter demanding answers: “In the absence of a clear and compelling explanation as to why such a decision was made, a reasonable person could infer from the information currently available that the decision was made for reasons other than those in the best interests of our students, possibly even in response to a single parent complaint.”

The letter is brilliant, but the idea, as the teachers well know, that this is all about a single parental complaint beggars belief. And frankly, if the cancellation did actually take place because of one fragile parent, it still doesn’t explain why the district would deny dozens of children an indelible experience. This is about the current political context, where right-wing parents—egged on and even financially incentivized by racist politicians—are attempting to bury ideas, bury resistance, and bury heroes. In other words, this has little to do with Barnes’s mild-mannered social-media presence, and everything to do with making sure these children develop neither an appreciation of Tommie Smith nor the liberatory love of reading.

As for Barnes, he commented about the cancellation, saying, “I don’t know what it was. You know, maybe they don’t want their children reading about Black resistance or Black love or Black joy. I don’t know.” Barnes also called the decision “very cowardly.”

It must be noted that not only were teachers spurred to action but parents were also up in arms. They rallied, held local press conferences, and even raised money to purchase Barnes’s books and fully stock 25 little free libraries.

Barnes was beyond moved, saying to CNN, “I can’t say thank you enough.… All of us who don’t want this country to go backwards, banning books in a country all about diversity, every parent, celebrity, and person who is an advocate of literacy and truth and real American history needs to speak out so our voices remain louder than the opposition.”

As Robin D.G. Kelley documented in his classic book Hammer and Hoe, Alabama has been an overlooked site of social struggle in a manner that dates from well before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Dexter Church, and the civil rights movement. This is just the latest chapter, but Alabama, like Florida, is a laboratory for the far right, aimed at seeing how much they can get away with. If they can eliminate our resistance heroes without resistance, our democracy is in trouble.

Thank you to Barnes, and especially the teachers, students, and parents of Hoover for letting the book burners know that the battle has been joined.

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