Born on June 6, 1944, in Clarksville, Texas, Tommie Smith set multiple records for the San José State University track-and-field team in the 1960s. After winning the 200-meter gold medal at the 1968 Olympics, he and teammate John Carlos caused an uproar by delivering a black-power salute on the podium. Smith went on to become a sociology professor and track coach until his retirement in 2005.
Thomas C. "Tommie" Smith was born to parents Richard and Dora on June 6, 1944, in Clarksville, Texas. One of 12 children, he survived a serious bout with pneumonia as a young boy, but recovered to become a superb athlete. After his family moved to California, he was voted the most valuable athlete of his basketball, football and track and field teams at Lemoore High School.
Smith enrolled at San José State University in 1963 with the intention of continuing his three-sport path, but he never joined the football team and gave up basketball after one season. His energies focused on track, he emerged as the star of coach Bud Winters's "Speed City" team, which also featured future Olympic teammate John Carlos. Smith broke or tied 13 world records during his collegiate career, including the marks for the 200-meter straight and turn and the 220-yard dash.
The track star also became involved in the civil rights movement, forming the Olympic Project for Human Rights with Carlos and sociology professor Harry Edwards. Although Smith and Carlos were named to the 1968 U.S. Olympic track-and-field team, the OPHR initially advocated an African-American boycott of the Summer Games before softening its stance.
1968 Olympics and the Salute
Smith won the 200-meter race at the Olympics in a world- and Olympic-record time of 19.83 seconds, with Carlos finishing third, but it was their time on the winners' podium that would become the iconic moment of the Summer Games. Wearing black socks and black gloves, the two men took their places, bowed their heads and triumphantly raised their fists in a show of black unity.
The fallout was harsh; with the International Olympic Committee determining that the Games were no place for such a political display, Smith and Carlos were forced to return their medals the following day and ordered to leave the Olympic village. The men were excoriated in some outlets for their "militant" exhibition and received death threats, although others offered praise for their courageous stance.
After graduating from San José State with a degree in social sciences, Smith spent three years with the Cincinnati Bengals in the National Football League before earning his Masters in sociology from Goddard College. He joined the Oberlin College faculty as a sociology professor and track coach, then spent 27 years in a similar capacity at Santa Monica College until retiring to the Atlanta area in 2005.
Smith was elected to the National Track & Field Hall of Fame in 1978, and has since been inducted to the California Black Sports Hall of Fame, the Bay Area Hall of Fame and the San Jose José University Sports Hall of Fame. In 2005, Smith and Carlos received honorary doctorates from their alma mater, and were in attendance for the unveiling of a statue on campus that depicted their famous Olympic salute.
In 2007, the former gold medalist released his autobiography, Silent Gesture, in which he revealed the experiences that prompted him to make a statement with his gloved fist, and the consequences of his polarizing action in subsequent years.
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