“If I win I am an American, not a black American. But if I did something bad then they would say ‘a Negro’. We are black and we are proud of being black. Black America will understand what we did tonight.” -Dr.Tommie Smith
Dr.Tommie Smith, the seventh of his family’s twelve children, was born in Clarksville, Texas on June 12, 1944. Smith attended Lemoore High School in California where he excelled at football, basketball and athletics.
In 1963, Smith won a scholarship to San Jose State College. While there, Smith set individual world records in the 200m and 400m. He also won the 220-yard title at both the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) championships in 1967.
In 1967, Dr.Tommie Smith became a founding member of the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR). Harry Edwards, a sociology professor at San Jose State College, encouraged African American athletes to boycott the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City to draw attention to racism within the United States. Although, African Americans did not boycott the Olympic Games, some athletes did agree to wear black knee-length socks, while competing in their events.
Smith went on to capture the gold in the 200m final of the 1968 Olympic Games by setting a new world record. Alongside him on the podium was fellow team mate, and OPHR member Dr. John Carlos, who had captured the bronze and Australian runner Peter Norman.
It is during this time where Tommie Smith’s name will forever be linked to the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. While the Star-Spangled Banner played during the medal ceremony, Smith raised his right, black gloved fist, while Carlos raised his left fist. Peter Norman, the Australian athlete who won the silver medal, joined the protest by wearing an OPHR badge on his chest.
Although this famous protest has been labeled the iconic “Black Power Salute” both Smith and Carlos has re-iterated that there protest was a protest for all people not only blacks in America. It was a protest for all injustices happening around the world.
After graduating from San Jose State, Smith went on to play professional football with the Cincinnati Bengals. In 1972 he later became a track coach at Oberlin College in Ohio, where he also taught sociology. He was inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1978.
Smith served on the coaching staff of the 1995 World Indoor Championship team in Barcelona. The following year he was inducted into the California Black Sports Hall of Fame and in 1999 he received the Sportsman of the Millennium Award. In 2001 the County of Los Angeles and the State of Texas presented Smith with Commendation, Recognition and Proclamation Awards.
During his career, Smith set seven individual world records and also was a member of several world-record relay teams at San Jose State, where he was coached by Lloyd (Bud) Winter. With personal records of 10.1 for 100 meters, 19.83 for 200 and 44.5 for the 400, Smith still ranks high on the world all-time lists.
In 2005, a statue showing Smith and Carlos on the medal stand was constructed by political artist Rigo 23 and dedicated on the campus of San Jose State University. Cleverly designed, the position where Peter Norman would have been standing is vacant so that any individual no matter of race, religion, or gender can take the place and stand in.
For his lifelong commitment to athletics, education and human rights following his silent gesture of protest at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, Smith received the Courage of Conscience Award from the Peace Abbey in Sherborn, Massachusetts.
Smith, along with Carlos, was a pallbearer at Peter Norman’s funeral in Melbourne in 2006. On July 16, 2008, Dr.John Carlos and Dr. Tommie Smith accepted the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage for their salute at the 2008 ESPY Awards.
With author David Steele, Smith wrote his autobiography, titled Silent Gesture, published in 2007 by Temple University Press.
Smith is currently a faculty member at Santa Monica College in Santa Monica, California.