Pop Culture

The Man Behind the Fist: Olympic Icon Tommie Smith’s Enduring Protest

After college, Smith was drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals and earned a master’s degree from Goddard College. In 1972 he took a job as the assistant director of athletics at Oberlin College, the first coeducational college in the U.S. and the first white institution to admit black students. Smith was hired by the school’s new athletic director, Jack Scott, a self-described “populist radical” who also hired Cass Jackson, the first Black head football coach to serve a predominantly white college.

In 1973, Howard Cosell of ABC Sports visited Oberlin to report on the changes Scott was bringing to the college, then controversial enough to warrant a segment on national television. Sitting in the bleachers alongside the track, Cosell asked Smith, then 28, if he thought he’d changed since 1968, if he’d grown less militant. “What does militant mean?” Smith asked, cracking a wry smile. Cosell raised his voice in a mock-scold: “Don’t spar with me, we’re not going back to ’68 Tommie! Militant means a guy who speaks out in protest, whether by physical symbol or vocally with a truculence attached to his tone of voice, against the existing establishment and its procedures. Now, with that premise, have you changed?” Smith smiled, straightened his shoulders, and replied: “I am a militant.”

At Oberlin, Smith learned to see “all sides” of the debate over equal rights, he said. “I had to see the Black side and the white side. I had to understand the unconscious bias of racist ideology.” Ultimately, he decided that the only way to effect change was to focus on what unites us. “Some people have Chevrolets, some people have Fords, but they use them to go to the same places,” he said. “I think that human nature is basically the same.” In 1978, Smith took a job as head track coach and professor of physical education at Santa Monica College, where he remained for 27 years. “It will not be easy to replace a legend,” the local paper, The Santa Monica Mirror, wrote of his retirement in 2005.

It’s hard to imagine Smith retiring as a legend if he’d stayed in Texas, where he’d always been taught to do as he was told and not make trouble, where he wasn’t allowed to eat in certain restaurants, or go to school with white children. But he believes he’d have been the same man. “It didn’t make a difference to me where I was, so long as I maintained my beliefs,” he told me. “I might not be alive, but I would have died with the same beliefs.”

Forty years after the Mexico City games, when Usain Bolt set three world records at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Smith presented him with one of the shoes he wore that night in 1968. Explaining why he chose to give the shoe to a Jamaican sprinter rather than an American, Smith told me, “Usain Bolt is a Puma athlete, and I view myself as a Puma athlete.” Although Smith set all of his other world records in Adidas, the company never gave him a dime. “Not one, they didn’t even call me,” he said. “I only ran one race in Puma shoes, the 1968 Olympic Games.” But if he was ever in need—$50 here, $100 there—the company was there for him. “I have always given allegiance to those that help those in need.”

Smith seldom attends protests today, but he celebrates those who continue to speak out and march for justice in the age of Black Lives Matter. “The superficial feeling of freedom has been broken wide open,” he said of the current movement. He wants for “everyone to understand—maybe not agree with—but understand the need for change,” he said. “Maybe then we can stop all this blood in the streets.”

In 2005, Smith moved with his wife, Delois, to Stone Mountain, more than 50 years after he boarded that labor bus from Texas to California. He hadn’t lived in the South since. But it’s affordable, he told me, and their daughter had been looking at colleges. Many of the best Historically Black Colleges and Universities are in the Atlanta area. They looked at 42 houses, and chose the 42nd. Fifty years ago, their town was whites-only; a leader of the KKK once lived just two miles from where the Smiths live now. Today, the area is mixed; the Smiths’ neighbors on either side are Black. They live on an acre and a half of land in a tidy neocolonial with a big porch and tall columns. Smith cleared the trees on his front lawn so he can see the road, where cars waving Confederate flags often pass by on their way to the monument. To Smith, it’s still home, though. “I know the racism of the South,” he said. “But I don’t run from racism.”

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