Legendary Olympian Tommie Smith honors Ronald Parrish

Roland Parrish MBE of Year
Roland Parrish MBE of Year

Special to The Dallas Examiner

ATLANTA – The second annual Live the Legacy Gala, presented by the Tommie Smith Youth Initiative Inc. on Oct. 6, commemorated the 50th anniversary of Dr. Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ silent protest gesture against inequality in America at the Olympic Games in Mexico City, Oct. 16, 1968. Smith had won the gold medal in the 200 meters, and Carlos had won the bronze medal.

Entertainment was provided by award-winning recording artist Montell Jordan – who is Smith’s son – as well as Grammy award-winning recording artist Fred Hammond and The Phin B Band.

During the recent gala held in Atlanta, Smith presented Roland G. Parrish, CEO of Parrish Restaurants Ltd., with the first Live the Legacy Award. Smith described Parrish as a highly educated man, a good father and his little brother.

“I love him dearly because he is an icon to greatness. This is why he was chosen by this committee to receive the Live the Legacy Award, tonight,” Smith said.

Parrish, who owns 21 McDonald’s franchises in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex, made history years ago by serving as the first chairman and CEO of the National Black McDonald’s Operators Association – for which he served three consecutive terms.

In 2015, he started the Parrish Charitable Foundation. In Fort Portal, Uganda, he built The John H. and Marie Parrish Medical Clinic, named in honor of his parents. The clinic focuses on caring for orphans and adults in the community. His future goal is to add on to the clinic by building a prenatal unit.

Upon accepting the award, Parrish reminisced about his relationship with Smith.

“Tommie Smith and I have created a special bond,” said Parrish. “He is up there with my other sports heroes, Muhammad Ali and Willie Mays. My courage and support of his important moment in history is unwavering. I am a strong believer in civil rights.”

He also recalled memories of the day of the salute.

“In 1967, I was in the basement of my parents’ home in Hammond, Indiana, watching a black-and-white TV,” he exclaimed. “I saw Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ whole race. When they were facing the medalists’ flags with their heads bowed, listening to the U.S. national anthem in front of the crowd, I see Tommie’s gloved fist go up high towards the sky in a victory salute. Behind him is Carlos who does the same thing. In 90 seconds, without a word being spoken, Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ message of racial inequality and lost opportunities because of the color of their skin was heard around the world. They made a huge impact on race relations in America that remains a moment etched in history.”

It was at the Olympic Games in Beijing, China, in Tiananmen Square, that Parrish and Smith met face-to-face for the first time.

“When I met Tommie, I had read three books about him and I knew his story,” Parrish further elaborated. “I knew he had a sister named Jewel, which is my wife’s name, and I knew that he was 10 years older than me. I knew he was a family man and a man that I respected deeply. What were the odds of me running into Tommie Smith at the Olympic Games in China? Since then we have become close friends – like family. I proudly accept being his little brother.”

Two days after their silent protest, they were suspended by the U.S. Olympic Committee after the International Olympic Committee threatened to suspend the entire U.S. team if they were not expelled. The two men were ordered to leave the Olympic Village and sent home to America.

Later, during an ABC interview, when asked the question, “Are you proud to be an American?” Smith replied, “I’m proud to be a Black American.” The devoted son of a sharecropper, raised picking cotton in California’s San Joaquin Valley, Smith said that he was not proud, at the time he was being interviewed, to be an American.

It took many years for Smith and Carlos to rebuild their lives and decades for them to receive the recognition they deserved for positively and non-violently highlighting the need for diversity and inclusion in America. Eventually, numerous breakthroughs in career opportunities, speaking engagements and respect for their stance in protesting for equality for all were bestowed on the two men.

In 2005, a 22-foot statue depicting the scene in Mexico was dedicated at San Jose State, where Smith and Carlos had been students and competed. Three years later, ESPN awarded Smith and Carlos the Arthur Ashe Courage Award.

In September 2016, President Obama recognized Smith and Carlos at the White House with members of the 2016 U.S. Olympic team.

“Their powerful silent protest in the 1968 Games was controversial, but it woke folks up and created greater opportunity for those that followed,” Obama said of Smith and Carlos.

That same year, U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun asked Smith and Carlos to be ambassadors for the organization. Their cleats are in the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., near the cleats of the historical Olympian Jesse Owens.

After 27 years as a teacher and coach at Santa Monica College in California, Smith retired, but his love for coaching children in the game of sports and life has continued.

Now in his ‘70s, Smith still struggles with understanding the state of race relations in the U.S. and often wonders what he and Carlos really accomplished 50 years ago.

According to Smith, his annual gala demonstrates his dedication to social justice and his intent to champion the cause nationwide for human rights for all marginalized people, especially children.

His youth foundation provides youth with clothing, shoes, equipment and training to support their athletic and educational endeavors. Through activism, mentoring and life coaching programs, the organization also strives to instill the wholesome virtues of discipline, fitness, character and courage to young people.

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