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Making a stand

When the University of Minnesota-Crookston's Black Student Association started looking for someone to headline the school's Black History Month events, Olympic champion and civil rights activist Tommie Smith was at the top of their list.

When the University of Minnesota-Crookston's Black Student Association started looking for someone to headline the school's Black History Month events, Olympic champion and civil rights activist Tommie Smith was at the top of their list.

"He's had an extraordinary life," the association's president, Marshall Johnson, said. "He really displayed the struggles and positive triumphs of the civil rights movement."

According to his Web site, Smith has worked as a professional football player, coach, physical education professor and athletic director. As a runner, he set seven individual world records during his career and was a member of several world record relay teams while a student athlete at San Jose (Calif.) State University.

But Smith is best remembered for the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, when after breaking the 200-meter world record, he raised a black-gloved fist in the air on the Olympic podium, in what his Web site calls "a historic stand for black power, liberation and solidarity."

Teammate and bronze medalist John Carlos joined in the salute and Australian silver medalist Peter Norman wore a human rights badge in support.

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Both Smith and Carlos were suspended from the U.S. team and the Olympic village.

Nearly 40 years later, Smith said Tuesday, students he speaks with often have little understanding of or connection to the civil rights movement of the '60s that led to his famous act.

"One reason my speech is so important is to let them see a living past, not a dead past," he said.

Smith said he plans to speak to students about the opportunities available to them because of sacrifices made in the past and because of recent technological advances.

"One might think the system's not changing now," he said, "but it's changing even more because we're living in a technological explosion. Back then, it was a social explosion."

UMC marketing professor Eric Burgess is the Black Student Association's faculty adviser. He said bringing Smith to the UMC campus is an opportunity for students to learn about the past.

"It's always good to get the perspective of people who've gone through struggles and learn what it meant to them," he said. "Quite frankly, I don't think a lot of our black students understand the struggles a lot of Americans, black and white, have gone through to help African-Americans gain civil rights."

Burgess said the presentation also is an opportunity to look forward to a more multicultural future that all his students will be living and doing business in.

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UMC senior Musa Karama, who studies sports and recreation management, was not born in 1968, but said he learned about Smith's act through family and friends and was inspired by it.

"He was an athlete, and he was willing to make a stand on the most prestigious stage in athletics," Karama said. "That's someone I can look up to when I'm trying to make a difference in myself."

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